I've had a love affair with PDAs since the first Windows CE color devices. However, these beautiful, powerful, handheld devices were limited largely to business. In all ways, they tended to perform poorly at entertainment. From the beginning, I've argued that there were two things that would create a critical mass on these devices: 1) providing good entertainment; and 2) providing flexible input and output.
The success of the iPhone illustrates how correct I was in the first point. It stumbled into the entertainment angle. It started out as a phone built around a media player, and if you listen to how Apple is beginning to position both the iPhone and the iTouch today, it has morphed into a gaming platform that also happens to have phone and media player functions included. Games are the primary applications that are driving sales.
In fact, every key innovation in PC technology for the past 30 years has been driven by gamers, but Microsoft, HP, and everyone else – including Apple with its largely accidental success with the iPhone – have ignored this in the portable electronic device market. And the whole time, I feel like I've been jumping up and down, screaming, “Deliver the games, become the dominant games delivery system - and the rest will follow!”The Apple Tablet will fail
Consumers and industry watchers have started looking at the success of the iPhone, and some of them are saying, "You know what would be cool? An iPhone a little bit bigger than my current iPhone but a little bit smaller than my MacBook." Apple is paying attention, it understands the desire, but it’s been struggling for a while with how to deliver this device.
Take my word: The super-hyped Apple Tablet – which is supposed to be a convergence of the iPhone, the Apple Mac, and the netbook phenomenon – is going to be a failure, even though conventional wisdom says that consumers have been going crazy, gnashing their teeth, and tearing at their hair for this device.
Why will the Apple Tablet fail? The one thing consumers don't want is another gadget that ultimately does the exact same thing as several other gadgets they already own, especially one that requires all kinds of contortions to move legally-licensed and legitimately-owned content around from device to device. Consumers are sick of the idea that they have to buy their digital content and then buy it again. While this isn't the only headache with multiple devices, it is one of the big challenges.
Why has Apple been incredibly cautious, cagey, and non-committal about delivering this device? I think Apple senses the risk here. It understands, even now as it looks almost certain this product will be released, that it’s going to miss the mark. This tablet will be too big to be a useful phone and too small to be a useful MacBook. It'll be needlessly confusing in Apple’s lineup and will alienate a lot of people who buy it and find, "When I need something bigger and more powerful, I still turn to my notebook, and when I need something smaller and more lightweight, I turn to my iPhone."What consumers want is a single device
What people really want, and they don't even know it, and neither does Apple, is a single device that morphs to meet their situational needs. We've got a word for this, and we've been using it as an industry for a long time now: "Convergence Technologies."
The iPhone is arguably the most successful piece of convergence technology to date - combining a media player, a portable gaming system, a cell phone, and a PDA. But how do we achieve this? How do we build a small portable device that morphs to meet a dozen different situational needs?
You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I think the technology is available. Imagine this… In the morning, the red lights of your nightstand alarm clock docking station flash as music from your library wakes you. You sit up, hit the snooze button, and take care of your morning rituals. As you leave the room, you grab the device from the cradle and clip it onto your belt or stow it in a pocket or purse.
As you walk into the kitchen, it automatically syncs with a flat panel on the wall and the fridge, displaying that you are low on milk. You issue a voice command for it to order more. Then you have it start brewing your morning cup of Joe. You sit down and redirect the large flat panel to display the morning news and weather. At the same time, you pick up a dormant eInk tablet and it simultaneously begins to send "print" news stories to this display. You eat your bagel and drink your coffee much like you always have, but this single device in your breast pocket or purse, which is a little bigger than a classic iPod, drives all of this media.
You hop into your car and the device automatically syncs with the car stereo via BlueTooth and your tunes start playing. It is also your hands-free mobile phone device, and you take calls by clicking a button on the steering wheel - just like OnStar. You drive to the Park and Ride, and it acts as a fastpass to automatically pay as you pass the kiosk to get on the train. Once on board, you pull out a pair of Personal Display Glasses, put them on, and play a game or watch a movie on the trip in to the city.
Once you get to the office, as you walk into your cube, the keyboard and displays there automatically recognize and synch with your device and you begin your office day, crunching numbers on an Excel spreadsheets. Later, you walk into the board room, and the overhead projector detects your device, allowing you to display the PowerPoint presentation you were working on earlier.
A model like this supports tiers of performance and quality. Depending on your needs, your core device might need a higher power processor or more internal storage and RAM – and the devices could be priced accordingly.
This is what people want their iPhone to be, and it’s what is driving the demand for an Apple Tablet – a demand that’s going to be unsatisfied by the current direction that Apple is pursuing to deliver this model.
The demand for Windscreen mounts and full-fledged turn-by-turn GPS applications is the most current example of "device convergence" achieved by the iPhone. Make the core device a single device that flexibly integrates to any number of input, access, and display devices throughout your day. The core device should be "faceless" like the Mac Mini. No integrated display – just a box with ports – that you plug into or connect to wirelessly.Final thoughts
People are overwhelmed with multiple different stand-alone devices that duplicate many features from platform to platform but do not integrate seamlessly. The Apple Tablet is simply going to add another interim layer to that gadget "mess" – one more touchscreen LCD device that lives in its own space and is tough to integrate into the rest of an individual's digital life. Unfortunately, fear of "cannibalizing" current business models means that we probably won't see a front-runner like Apple introduce this technology.
Palm could be a contender, although if Android fails and HTC struggles with its Windows Mobile and Android handsets over the next few years, we could see that partnership become desperate enough to attempt something like this.
However, I don't think the concept alone will result in success. Clearly, an infrastructure to support and nurture the device that I described would be necessary for it to achieve a critical mass. The iPod didn't have tremendous after-market support at first. Only when it became clearly logical and profitable for third parties to develop docks and stereos and desk clocks and auto adapters and cases for the iPod did this after-market growth occur.
A device like I suggest is going to succeed or fail based on after-market support. LCDs, projectors, keyboards, mice, handsets and headsets, automobile-integration – and all of these things that add value to the core unit will not be developed by a single company.
So, what do you think? Is an Apple Tablet a must-have product, or is it just another unnecessary gadget in a clutter of unmanageable personal electronics? Is the answer to have multiple, dedicated gadgets, or can we look forward to a future where a single powerful gadget takes on the roles of multiple modern electronic toys?
Sonja Thompson started at TechRepublic in October 1999. She is a former Senior Editor at TechRepublic.