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Tablet innovation race II

Some more critical thoughts regarding the ongoing hype around tablet computers.

Author: Christophe Stoll
Date: 3. January 2010

Some days ago, I wrote a post compiling some concept videos for Tablet Computing I found interesting and exciting. Still, I can get pretty euphoric about the hype and especially for designers interested in newspaper and magazine design, no matter how diffuse and indefinite things still are at present, it could become a very promising platform to keep up with.

If there’s going to be hardware from players like Apple and Google, this will definitely lift handheld computing and touch interaction to the next level and leverage mainstream adoption – with the potential to heavily influence how readers are consuming digital content.

But nevertheless, as with any kind of hype, we should not forget to take a look at some drawbacks. So, in addtion to these really exciting videos from the last post, here’s a collection of some more critical aspects, summarizing different thoughts I found on the internets during the last couple of days.

Think software and hardware
In a recent posting called 2010: The Year of the Tablet (on Bits, a New York Times Blog), Nick Bilton has a go at these concept videos some publishers released to the public. He argues that “It’s important to understand how difficult these devices will be to produce, especially if done right”. Apart from interaction ideas and usage scenarios, there’s also a hardware side that needs to fulfill conceptual promises. It’s easier to stage such slick user experiences than to actually implement them as a product. Also, Bilton points to an older post where he explains why tablets flopped.

Remember former hypes
On December 22nd 2009, Jack Shafer published an article called The Tablet Hype on Slate where he argues that “they [the tablets] can’t possibly save magazines and newspapers”. He draws a very elaborated comparison to former attempts by publishers to invest in new technologies (remember bonus multimedia CD-ROMs?), quoting Digitizing the News Author Pablo Boczkowski: “…, even when established media companies attempt to innovate into a new media space, they end up hedging—not throwing enough energy into new media because they’re too invested in the legacy”. His post might sound a bit polemic (especially when he says he’d rather invest in “a second HDTV for his bedroom” instead of watching video on an overpriced handheld device), but mainly the criticism that publishers praise the tablet because it potentially resembles already known forms and paradigms, got me thinking. Here, he again quotes Pablo Boczkowski from an interview: “A large fraction of the public doesn’t read the news online as they did in print” – and Shafer adds: “They’re more interested in browsing, searching, linking, and interacting than they are in long, sustained intakes of information”.

Or in that New York Times Magazine article from December 30th 2009, thoroughly investigating the question “But what is a magazine?”, the author writes: “No wonder magazine editors are enthusiastic about tablet computers, the reader-friendly devices that might appear this spring; maybe their size and functionality can infuse digital publications with magazineness” and in the end argues that digital news consumption might be just a whole different paradigm, and people looking for magazines will “go where they have gone for 100 years. To the newsstand”.

Bridging print to digital
In Thoughts on Time’s Tablet Magazine Concept, LukeW makes several suggestions how digital tablet magazines could set themselves apart from their physical predecessors. The imitation of such things as using strong covers, or the very similar approach to page layout might be helpful as a short-term bridge, but he mainly sees the following four “more uniquely digital models win in this space”: Journalism as Software, Snippet-based content experiences, Deeper integration of multimedia and Social Engagement (go to the posting to read his explanations).

For Alice Rawsthorn, who recently wrote an article called Impact of ‘iSlate’ Could Rival iPhone for the New York Times, the biggest potential for a forthcoming Tablet device lies in its e-reader capabilities: “If a really great e-reader appeared, the market would explode. The e-reader is waiting for a killer product, just as the MP3 player was before Apple’s iPod”. And, related to what this could mean for the correlation between digital and analog publications, she goes on: “If it comes through, demand for electronic books, newspapers and magazines should soar. This will create an exciting design challenge for their publishers to develop seductive ways of presenting their content on e-readers. In theory, e-newspapers could combine the convenience of the printed product with the dynamism of their Web sites. And e-magazines should be more visually compelling with higher resolution images than their Web versions. As well as helping publishers to tackle the thorny problem of how to make money from the Internet, it could enable them to create dazzling new e-media”.

What’s new about tablets anyway?
… you can find this as a bottom line from numerous tablet hype slashers. In fact, there are plenty of Tablet PCs already on the market and there’s even a concept video for a Tablet Newspaper from 1994. However, Tablet PCs are nowadays niche devices for tech-savvy early adopters and when it comes to mobile computing, you can still see many more people reading the news on their smartphone, on netbooks or on regular notebooks rather than on so called digital Slates.

Basically, the success and the dizzying pervasiveness of the iPhone, which is strictly speaking rather a mini tablet than a mobile phone (or a “general-purpose handheld computing platform”, as John Gruber puts it), has already changed the game for an ever growing mass audience – touch interaction is now state of the art. And it will be a breeze for Apple or Google to connect their application ecosystems to these new devices. Millions of people are already using them, spending a fortune every minute of a day, and it will simply be another form of representation that will be placed between people and technology.

John Gruber, already quoted above, asks himself where Apple could most likely position a Tablet device: “And so in answer to my central question, regarding why buy The Tablet if you already have an iPhone and a MacBook, my best guess is that ultimately, The Tablet is something you’ll buy instead of a MacBook”. Marco Arment slightly disagrees on this, among other arguments pointing to the weak input mechanisms of such devices: “The text-input mechanism seems to be the big hurdle required to bridge this portability-and-usefulness gap. So far, nobody has nailed it”. And he continues with a quite refreshing conspiratorial assumption: “I see two possible outcomes: either Apple has come up with a radical new input method for this form-factor that will overcome the fundamental problems that made every other similar device suck, or the Tablet isn’t this form-factor”.

Market domination vs. Open Source
This leads to another thought, expressed as a comment to my last post by Peter Kirn. Does it have to be Apple only again, or as new speculations go, Apple and Google? Should innovation be possessed by giants? Instead of all developers migrating to a single platform, as it happened with the iPhone, he claims for a “lightweight, affordable tablet” that favors open development.

This might first sound a bit idealistic, especially in the face of the giants about to enter the field with high speed and full power, but we should think about it more profoundly. An example that comes to mind is the monome (we did an extensive interview with monome founders Kelly Cain and Brian Crabtree in 2007). The monome is an open source hardware for audio production and musical performance that offers a very generic design, based on a grid of illuminated buttons. Every detail about the device and its software side is documented online, you could even get DIY kits and parts to build your own instrument based on the monome concept.

When we asked if they’re not afraid if some big companies could rip-off their ideas and sell cheaper products that are offering comparable functionality, they answered: “It seems remarkably unlikely as there’s not a profitable incentive. We believe the intellectual property system is broken. Our best protection is our openness. We’re also quite confident in the build quality of our devices. Similar products on the market (and upcoming) we don’t see as being absolutely derivative, and they really missed the main point. It’s not just about blinky buttons”. Some years later, there are commercial products from big manufacturers that highly resemble the monome approach: take a look at what Ableton developed together with Akai (the APC40) or Novation (the Launchpad), two of the biggest makers of audio hardware.

And what happened to monome? They just announced a new edition, the monome 64 greyscale, for January 1st 2010 and I’ll bet you, it’s already sold out. But apart from still selling their hardware regardless of giants now being part of the game, they have made the commercial success possible by fostering a very inspiring and networked community of active users. Moreover, the monome spirit is perfectly inherent in the APC40 or the Launchpad – they don’t feel like rip-offs, but like a reasonable continuation, worshipfully complimenting the original idea. I guess this is mainly because they also focused on openness and creative freedom. Ableton Live, which is the software side for both the APC40 and the Launchpad, now has a semi-open development platform called Max for Live integrated – using them in peaceful coexistence with monome or other hardware makes total sense and is apparently desired by suppliers and users likewise.

What does this have to do with tablets? Well, it probably illustrates that you don’t need to be a giant or a market leader to extensively influence a certain product landscape. The comparison might be flawed, since the audio world is a niche in itself – but you get the idea. There’s a lot of room (and demand?) for a grassroots, open source alternative. Although it’s too late to replicate the monome story, intellectual power like this should evolve quickly to gain relevance and reach. Well, the litl webbook also surprised with its sudden appearance, offering their own interpretation of a portable computer, with their own Linux-based OS and semi-open application framework …

Gadget vs. Utility vs. Affordability
As we all know, many Gadgets are very expensive and thus only available to a privileged population – this mainly counts for Apple products, I assume. And do we really need Gadgets? Steve Rubel just wrote an interesting post about this.

Shouldn’t it be a major goal for new kinds of computing devices, to make things like affordability, real utility and low energy consumption the same priority as display quality and portability? Shouldn’t be the possibility and freedom to access the news, books, movies and other modern cultural comforts from everywhere be available to everybody? Isn’t this the right time for a truly far-ranging innovation?

I guess this question starts with the price tag. There’s a lot of speculation around the pricing an Apple tablet could have, but the lowest common denominator is currently around $700. That’s a lot, and although it might be dumped over time (as it happened with the iPhone), it still won’t be affordable for a very wide audience. As recent Gadget history has told, announcing “the next big thing with a breakthrough price point” can also lead to a debacle (read a very detailed column on engadget) – a new tablet computer, originally announced as CrunchPad is now going to be shipped as the joojoo at $499. And there are more tablets in the making, with quite promising price tags – hope is they won’t have to go the CrunchPad path as well: a new device called “Adam”, developed by a company based in India, is being advertised for a June 2010 release at around $321. Freescale is going to introduce a $199 smartbook at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). And last but not least, the One Laptop Per Child organisation (OLPC) present their vision of a tablet for 2012, aiming $75.

Conclusion?
I’m sure there will be a lot of announcements and discussion in this field and I’m looking forward to observing and eventually commenting it myself here and there. A main reason why I wrote down some thoughts, some found and some home-brewed is for being able to easily trace how my own mind and perspective alters over time.

After all, as a designer I still love to work on pure conceptual ideas for content presentation and interaction. And personally, I’m looking forward to holding a tablet in my hands, flipping through any kind of digital magazine, whatever it will be exactly. As always, hindsight is easier than foresight.

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Oh, there are 7 comments so far

  1. Nice write – thanks. I just want to add an obivious one that’s all around the place. What do I need a tablet for? John Gruber thinks Apple will reinvent computing starting with the tablet and come to think of it that’s the only answer that makes sense because all other use cases are covered and don’t need a tablet at all. So unless you change the rules the tablet is poised to fail.

    Somewhat related I’ve to say I’m very impressed with the Amazon Kindle. There was never an electronic device that felt so analog and just works without anything hassle – if newspapers think about the future they should think about the Kindle – and no I’m not paying $2,3 per FAZ issue on the Kindle.

    Bertram on 3. January 2010
  2. I think we should have a glass of wine together this week. And bring your Kindle! ;-)

    Christophe Stoll on 4. January 2010
  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by TweetDiscovered: Tablet Innovation Race II | precious forever http://bit.ly/8yIih5

    uberVU - social comments on 4. January 2010
  4. Tablet innovation race II ? article by christophe stoll http://www.precious-forever.com/2010/01/03/tablet-innovation-race-2/

    gestalter (gestalter) on 4. January 2010
  5. Happy to. Has to be Wednesday or Thursday as I’m still on vacation till then ;)

    Bertram on 4. January 2010
  6. [...] A follow-up story, however, responding to comments by me and others, wondered if a more open, sustainable, hype-free future could apply more intelligent design: Tablet innovation race II: Some more critical thoughts regarding the ongoing hype around tablet comp… [...]

    Create Digital Music » Tablets, Slates, Multi-touch Everywhere, But Details Scant; Round Up of New Offerings on 8. January 2010
  7. the good stuff aka the future of publishing/reading put together nicely: part I http://bit.ly/5g5HBh part II: http://bit.ly/918zmO #precious

    ni_ko_laj (ni_ko_laj) on 26. January 2010

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