On the eve of the Apple special event, and considerably more information dribbling out from sources that we are looking at a tablet-format device, spare a moment for those naysayers asking why the world “needs” another tablet, when the models before (powered by flavours of Windows) have all but failed to make an impact, except for very highly specialised fields, such as medicine and logistics.
My reading of their assertions, usually anonymously posted in the comments sections of mainstream IT or Apple websites and blogs, has all the echoes of past attributions about previous Apple breakthrough devices, specifically the iPod and the iPhone. (Most of the commenters are too young, judging by the grammar and spelling, to be around when the other breakthrough device, the Macintosh was released in 1984.)
Others of a more erudite nature are asking what solution the tablet is seeking to address, which is a reasonable question to ask of any technology. But they forget the history of technologies in human development, as I usually elaborate upon in my workshops on Technologies and Society. (I am often asked by professional colleagues to address fellow psychologists who wish to be updated on technology trends and how to better incorporate changes into their practices. I always start by giving a potted history of mankind’s relationship with technology).
Technologies like the tablet always bring a curious mixture of hope, doubt, powerlessness, and empowerment to those who spend time considering how a new technology might impact them. Change, not of your own decision-making, is hard. IT departments in large enterprises know that about 50% of IT projects fail in their implementation, either because it was the wrong solution for the estimated problem, there are cost overruns, loss of significant project personnel at a critical time sees the project delayed, there is political interference should a merger take place simultaneously, and finally, the end user – the data entry staff – reject the new technology because it is a poor match for what they do, they are so accustomed to how to do things, or their training has been poorly managed.
But like most things Apple, this new device is not aimed at taking over the enterprise market place. I’m sure Apple is very content to leave that to the likes of Microsoft and Oracle for instance. Big profits, but big headaches too, with Windows Vista being a good example of the latter, and not the former.
In these introductory minutes I spend with workshop groups, I attest to how technologies have been used down the ages: as tools to enable, extend, augment, and connect humans and their innate abilities. The best technologies, those that have the most impact for the most people, do all four. These technologies often leave previous technologies that bear a faint resemblance to their purpose, as archival pieces, to be studied in history class, or to be repurposed.
Those who believe the tablet will be just another computer but in a different, but hitherto unsuccessful physical form, and thus doomed to failure, are dooming themselves to repeat history: that of misunderstanding how technology progresses, and in particular how Apple conceives of technology and its place in human-computer interaction.
You only need to recall the negativity when rumours of an Apple cell phone began in earnest in 2006: “.. the market is too mature for an outsider like Apple to enter” was the gist of one type of message heard. “What does Apple know about making phones…?” was another, utterly forgetting that Apple is a hardware company as well as a software developer. Given the “maturity” of the cellphone market, meaning the stuff that makes them operate was now so ubiquitous and cheap that the cost of entry to the cellphone market was not the issue – it was how to differentiate oneself from the usual suspects.
And this is where Apple’s design superiority and integration caught the senior citizens of telephony flatfooted, locked as they were into seeing hardware as the differentiator (how many models does Nokia have at any one time – dozens if not scores. Makes choosing just the right one easy, right? Wrong!), rather than software.
Apple saw that universal access to the internet (web, email, file sharing etc) was the next bold step for a portable device to take, and its mobile Safari browser was at the time the best reproduction of a desktop browser available, compared to the poor excuse for internet connectivity of other phones.
As the iPhone went through generational improvements (in Australia we got the 3G version to start us off) it became clear to many users that the phone had much of the functionality of their laptop computer, albeit restricted to the connectivity aspects. But in other respects, the iPhone, via the innovativeness of its ecosystem of developers, exceeded the functions of a laptop. Ask a long term user of the iPhone how often they now feel naked if they leave home without their laptop…
Did Apple envision the iPhone performing these tasks in 2004 or 2005, when Steve Jobs is said to have moved Apple towards a cellphone business? Who knows, but it’s clear Apple does not wait for others to lead the way forward with respect to human-technology interaction. It waits until the hardware components have sufficiently matured (i.e., small enough, reliable enough, cheap enough) to then apply its software and design savvy to new solutions to the same old problems of the big four: “enable, extend, augment, and connect humans and their innate abilities.”
It’s true other technology companies often enter a field earlier than Apple, but too often their technologies are too big, too unreliable and too clumsy to use other than for specialist needs and where there is very limited competition. And thus also too expensive to break out of the enterprise and into the consumer world.
Apple takes the reverse path, designing for the masses (yes, those in the mass who can afford and appreciate well-designed and built equipment). Later, those early adopters bring it (e.g., the iPhone) into the enterprise, where IT staff are made to kick and scream in protest that it’s all too much and their expertise – and importance – is being challenged by those who don’t understand the role of enterprise level IT. Go here to read what I’m sure has to be a tongue in cheek apocalyptic blog entry from an IT specialist).
So, the lesson is that Apple releases groundbreaking devices that change how we both think about and interact with digital technologies, usually in fields already explored but not exploited by other companies, and does it in a compelling fashion not for IT geeks, but for those who want something better than “good enough“.
When the tablet is unveiled, you’ll see a combination of gasps and disappointments. Some will immediately see the road ahead, especially developers who can see how to extend their product line and reach new audiences, and who have learnt from the iPhone’s introduction to look beyond the initial release product and roadmap. And the disappointment will be from those who expected some miracle device in a version 1.0 product without understanding how Apple operates.
They’ll stick as long as they can with their Kindles, looking for reasons why its one pony show is a great solution for that problem; or they’ll stay with a Windows 7 powered tablet so they can exercise their minds with Microsoft Office in a tablet format, as if somehow that’s better than a desktop or netbook or laptop solution.
But for those who gasp, who get what Apple’s doing yet again with familiar but newly thought through technologies, they will be very anxious to change how they conduct their lives on a day to day basis, for the better.