25 January 2010

Couldn't resist!

Back-from-the-blogging-dead for just 1 post!

For the last few weeks, it's been full-on with the rumour mill on the Apple iTablet/iSlate or whatever. Let's just call it the iTablet here though I doubt (hope) tablet or slate will be in the name.

There have been some really intelligent things written by the usual commenters (oh, if I could write and think like Gruber!), and there's been the usual useless prophesying of doom, me-too, etc.

What the naysayers still haven't realised after years of being proven wrong is that Apple hasn't just been lucky, it's been incredibly smart for years and years. The only area where Apple has arguably not delivered a success in the Jobs-era is the AppleTV - and this is the one thing that Steve Jobs described as a hobby around the time it was released. If you haven't figured out this guy is smart yet, it's really about time you stopped "analysing"? I've interviewed with him before, and believe me he knows what he wants and he knows the people who can make it happen (I DIDN'T get the job!)

Has Apple's success happened overnight with just a few clever ideas? No. Look at the small pieces that have to be put together one component at a time to deliver the whole experience. It is this attention to detail in terms of the overall experience that takes each individual product above its competitors and keeps it out ahead. At the same time, Apple would rather leave out a feature than do it badly or have it create other problems that they KNOW, but the "analysts" don't. Does it now look like a stupid move to have a 2G iPhone as the first model?

So, with this in mind, we enter this week in the expectation that Apple will completely re-invent another area of our lives that we didn't even know needed re-inventing before the rumours started. Just as Apple killed the successful iPod mini with the iPod nano, I expect it this week to announce the product that begins the long-term decline of the laptop. Of course, many people will still need a laptop and/or prefer one (I'm likely to be a long term user for many reasons, but I would probably be considered unusual), and these people will generally be the ones that pour scorn on the new direction. Other people will say it wasn't Apple that did it, but that Apple is just responding to the netbook companies that started it.

But, Apple will do it in Apple's way - using user interface paradigms that initially we'll be unsure about, but will begin to appreciate as we see it demoed, as we see it being used, and as we begin to use it ourselves. Irrespective of the absolute form factor and other features, it will be the way we interact with it that will make THIS product introduction be the defining way such devices will work in the long term. Think Mac GUI and mouse, iPod clickwheel and iPhone multi-touch here - defining moments in the consumer electronics industry.

Could Apple get it wrong? Possibly. Newton 1.0 wasn't ready for primetime. Newton 2.0 was, but never got over the reputation of 1.0. Jobs is smarter than the people around Apple at that time. He has been waiting until it all comes together to do it right (iPod required small disks, firewire and clickwheel to do something revolutionary; iPhone required touch, SSD, high power tiny chips).

Apple have been sweating these details for years. I've read a rumour that the iPhone came out of the tablet development, and it's not an unlikely scenario. Multi-touch was not sufficiently developed or even understood to be used in something revolutionary beyond a small device with limited gestures. As MacWorld contributor Dan Moren wrote, this device will succeed or fail based on whether people BELIEVE they can INPUT stuff into it quickly and accurately - whatever stuff they want, but especially the stuff they are used to putting in their laptops via a keyboard. Any additional inputs (e.g. dictation, recording) will be bonuses. But the basics are a REQUIREMENT.

If Apple CAN get the input side right (early reactions will no doubt include the same people who condemned touch on the iPhone), then it has several advantages over the situation in mobile when it jumped in. Here, they were a late entrant into a theoretically competitive and maturing market - a market that was supposed to swallow up the iPod line as this functionality became just an extra app built into a mobile. Also, there was the gateway managed by restrictive telcos to negotiate - what was the most Apple could put in the device that would still allow them to partner with one or more major telcos? The iPhone remains below it's true potential today for these reasons (e.g. VoIP on 3G), but has blown a big hole in many of the restrictive models that were around before - something rarely appreciated by Apple's critics, but which has benefitted all handset makers and consumers.

In this case, we have an immature market, with no gatekeepers - and that is even giving some credit to the tablets already out there that are really nothing more than windows pc's with a stylus. With the iPhone, there were NO apps when it was released, and the best we could get were a limited number of web apps. Apple will release the tablet with a rich set of applications already there to demonstrate it's usefulness, and the existing iPhone developers will jump on ship quickly making use of possibly the best application delivery platform ever available (I do not see this as just a big iPhone - that would fail, but I do see many of the developments being carried over to the iTablet. I guarantee, there will be no shortage of apps very quickly - perhaps even day 1. Let's just hope that the good ones rise to the surface quickly. I believe the key in widespread success will be how quickly the ecosystem of hardware add-ons and software develops to produce compelling uses that were never before possible with either a laptop or a tiny phone. That will create the barriers to entry allowing Apple to profit from the device over the long term.

That brings us to two other key success factors. The first is how much Apple can open up this device when compared with the iPhone. I've no doubt this will be an openly multi-tasking device (not just limited to certain Apple-designed apps) - but how this is done without compromising performance, reliability and security will be key. I also think Apple will have to allow alternative application delivery methods here - at least in the medium term. Central control has served it (and its customers) well for the iPhone. But this model will be too restrictive in the longer term for a device like this, constrain new business models and entrants into the ecosystem. I don't believe Windows will develop fast enough to offer good alternatives, but Google can take either ChromeOS or Android into this area quite quickly and give a more open proposition if Apple doesn't do it fast on the back of release.

The final issue comes down to cost. Apple is known as the high cost company - something I feel is grossly misrepresented by many in the media and the anti-apple brigade who can't understand basic specification sheets or look at cost of ownership - but let's face it, plenty of companies will come up with something cheaper that purports to do a similar thing. Can Apple deliver this best-of gadget at a compelling price - much as it has with the iPhone - by both quantity production and perhaps viewing the device as a gateway to content consumption and application purchase for which it's getting a cut?

If these things are on Apple's side, then this device becomes the main device we carry around with us as we work, play, travel, etc. THE primary device on which content is consumed, communicated and collaborated (but less so, created). Sure, we'll still need our phones - and for many this may still do - but how often will most people need their laptop? It's not even going to be one device per family - this will be intended to be a one-per-family-member product much as the iPod has become - with you in the kitchen/breakfast table, a companion to watching tv, on the train, in meetings, at conferences or lectures, as we go about most aspects of our jobs and our leisure activities. There will be a steady shift back towards the home computer/desktop computer as the place it all comes together and for heavy lifting (e.g. photo/video management) - as well as (or maybe just) the cloud for the actual storage of our data.

The notebooks have tried to destroy the laptop market by cheapness. Can Apple destroy it (an area it makes much of its profit) by building something BETTER than a laptop for most of what we do? I personally think it can and I think Steve Jobs is on a mission to do this (remember the comment "the PC wars are over. Done. Microsoft won a long time ago"? Is that not a motivator for him to change the game?). The mainstream media have set this as a (perhaps an unfairly) high hurdle, but Wednesday's announcement will probably be judged on whether the new product meets this challenge (while being criticised for attempting to take the challenge on and not delivering in every single possible area!). It is a measure of Apple's achievements that this is even being talked about so enthusiastically BEFORE a product is released - where's the excitement from Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc who should equally be capable of this sort of development, let alone the Redmond machine which will once again be left looking foolish and void of ideas. It will be a true measure of greatness if Apple can deliver something that yet again inspires a new round of innovation.

What an exciting week ahead!

Tags: , , , ,