It is easy to hook us tech-types on the idea of change. By nature we’re a well educated bunch with at least a college degree under our belts, and those who actually work in IT or other areas of the industry (rather than guys like me, who just do the journalism bit) are not unlikely to have a Masters in something. Our minds are constantly turning towards the Next Big Thing, and we love the idea of technology swooping in and revolutionizing the world, turning the world into Snow Crash (but only the cool parts, of course).
However, this can also give us a narrow minded point of view. Case in point? The tablet computer.
Now that the iPad is out it isn’t hard to find praise for the idea of the tablet computer. Wired ran an article called “13 of the Brightest Tech Minds Sound Off on the Rise of the Tablet” in which tech junkies sound off about their belief that tablets will soon take over the world. Some comments are rare moments of stupidity caused by an inability to see past one’s own nose, as is the case with Neil Young, CEO of ngmoco, who apparently believe the only things that matters is if a tablet gets him chicks.
Of course, the netbook was supposed to replace the laptop and be used by millions around the world. Forget the netbook. It’s a slow, clunky piece of junk. Do I want to look like the guy who couldn’t afford a real computer or the guy who went to the future and brought back a device that’s as cool as I imagine I am?
Other comments are brilliant, but so out of touch with the real consumer market that they miss the point entirely. Kevin Kelly’s comment is the prime example.
And that is the second difference between this window and past devices: The tablet window goes two ways. You watch; it watches you. Its eye can remain on all the time, watching you as much as you like. Brian Eno once famously said (in the pages of Wired) that the problem with computers was that there was not enough Africa in them. By this he meant that computers as we knew them could “see” only the wiggling ends of our fingers as we typed. But if they could see and employ the rest of our body, as if we were dancing or singing, we could express ourselves with greater finesse. This window tablet injects some Africa into computers.
While the comments in the Wired article range from brilliant to obtuse to slack-jawed stupid, they all seem to focus in on a belief that tablets will be quite revolutionary, and more than a few of the comments state, in one way or another, that tablets will significantly replace the mainstream computer as a ways of interacting with media.
And to that I say – bullshit.
First, let’s not forget that, despite all of the hype behind tablets, the only attractive product available for people to buy right now is the Apple iPad. The iPad is a brilliant device, and it is selling very well – one million in the first month. And that’s great. But let’s not forget that that there are 280 million people in the United States, nevermind the 6 billion people in the world, and that even if you only consider the United States market it would take over 23 years to put an iPad into the hands of every person in this country. While Hot Hardware’s coverage of the iPad declared that “the revolution is on” they never took the time to explain just how slow this revolution apparently is.
The iPad’s success also begs another question, one which is unanswered and is critical to the idea that tablets will become a force of change – can anyone else replicate Apple’s success? If not, then you can forget about the revolution. Tablets have a snowman’s chance in hell of becoming a mainstream consumer product at their current price point, but if no one else can enter a significantly competitive product Apple won’t have any reason to lower the price. It is hard to tell what might come out in a year, but the immediate future does look grim, as the consensus seems to be that other tablets, like the JooJoo, suck.
But let’s put the issue of supply aside and start talking about demand. One major argument in favor of tablets centers around the idea of the “consumption device.” The idea is that tablets are superior for consuming media – videos, books, and etc – while the only really thing computers can do well is produce content. Most people don’t spend their days producing content, so it makes sense that tablets will rise to glory.
This argument is an interesting one, since it is essentially an attempt to appeal the “common people”, but the awkwardness of the argument reveals how little techies known about “common people.” The argument is absolutely right about content creation - most people certainly don’t have the desire to produce content – but absolutely wrong about content consumption. People don’t care about online video. They couldn’t care less about watching TV shows on a computer or any other device. They don’t care about being able to browse the web from their couch because they hardly browse the web anyway. They don’t care about being able to play games because they don’t really play many games and if they do, it may very well be a board game. There is a significant number of people who simply don’t want the kind of content tablets provide.
Techies forget this, because our worlds already center around the computer. We watch most of our videos on the computer, we download our music on the computer, we play games on the computer. To us, the tablet in fact could be a nice change of pace – finally, we can get our butts off the computer chair and back on the couch. But most people never left the couch at all. The VAST majority of people still watch their TV shows on a TV. And get this – the majority of people still listen to physical copies of music. I know – for those of us who’ve grown up on computers, this is a real shocker. But it is the true. Our connectivity make us feel like the world, but in fact our habits are exceptions to the rules.
The real competitor to the tablet, then, is not the computer. It is the book, the TV, the CD and the DVD player. And when looked at in comparison to these devices the tablet is not nearly as attractive. Who is really going to decide to watch TV on their tablet instead of their actual TV? Who is really going to read a book on their tablet instead of a real book? Who is going to listen to music on their tablet instead of on a real CD player? The answer is – techie types. And no one else.
At this point the most common objection I get is “But what about watching TV on your commute? Or in bed when the main TV is being hogged?” Really? How many people actually commute, both in the United States and globally? Very few. Yes I know, you’re cool and you want to be sustainable and so you take the bus or the train or what the hell ever, but most people don’t. As for the “in bed” argument - the average household income in the United States is $50,000. In most countries, it is less. Think about this, and then the price of the iPad, and ask yourself how often this usage scenario actually happens.
So, there you have it – all of the reasons why tablets will not change the world. As is so often the case in the tech world the revolution is will extremely exciting and mean nothing at all.