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A tablet-driven view of what’s wrong with American business

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The tablet marketplace exemplifies a lot that’s wrong with American business.

Start with the original Windows tablets. Great concept, lousy execution, ridiculously overpriced.

The concept itself was clearly superior to the iPad, assuming your goal is to do real work. With a Windows tablet you could use a stylus to write into the applications you use anyway. You know. Work.

Why does a stylus matter, other than as a matter of personal preference?

Because the subject is tablets. Smartphones are small enough that you can hold them and thumb-type without difficulty. Laptops are designed to rest on a surface to allow typing.

Tablets? They should be useful while held, as well as when they rest on a surface. That means one hand has to hold it. That means either one-handed typing, or writing on the screen.

That’s why the original Windows tablets were conceptually superior to the iPad for doing real work. Too bad they were done so badly.

It’s an exemplar for a commonplace situation in American business: Thinking a great concept should support high prices and healthy margins without anyone having to sweat the details.

It’s also a second exemplar. Reportedly, one reason these machines were so poorly executed was internal infighting at Microsoft — competing organizational silos unable to effectively collaborate. Huh. Internal infighting hurting a company’s competitiveness. Have we seen this movie before?

Exemplar #3: The iPad itself. Sure it’s cool. But cool doesn’t pay the bills.

The iPad is designed for information consumers, not for doing actual work. The tell-tales are everywhere. Here’s one: Try to find a decent stylus. You can’t!

Why does this matter? For information consumers and Gamers¬† it doesn’t. For business people? We’ve already covered handheld use. How about something even more basic: Taking notes in a meeting.

Without a stylus, your choices are to either tap on a keyboard or finger-paint in a business setting.

The problem with tapping on a keyboard isn’t that it doesn’t work, although it doesn’t if you’re using the on-screen version and are accustomed to doing something I like to call “typing.” It’s that it’s rude, because when people in a meeting type, they’re interacting with their machines, not with each other. That’s just how it is, no matter how good a typist you are. But the alternative is even worse: Writing with your fingertip.

It’s finger-painting and it looks stupid. That’s all there is to it.

It’s also worth mentioning that Apple didn’t seem to think it would be useful to build handwriting recognition into the iPad as a shared service.

Don’t get me wrong. The iPad is a beautifully designed gadget, designed to sell to Americans as we are. My concern: We’re more interested in being entertained than in being more effective.

The iPad caters to us.

Which brings up exemplar #4: Timidity.

Imagine you’re Someone Important at Motorola. You did well creating Smartphones that are iPhone-like but could be sold by Verizon.

So well you convince yourself you did something interesting.

So now Apple releases the iPad and it sells like gangbusters (better, because really, do you know anyone who ever bought a gangbuster?)

You tell your design team to … what?

(Mental image of Bob’s hand in the air, trying to get the teacher’s attention. “I know! I know! Pleaaaase call on me!”)

You say, “Design something that’s a year late to market, almost as good, just as expensive, and with no competitive differentiators.”

“Whatever you do, avoid anything that’s original or different. Our motto here: ‘Play it safe. Even if we know the result won’t attract any … whatchamacallit … customers.’ That isn’t what matters here. What matters is covering our political posteriors.”

How else to explain the Xoom? It’s politics over design combined with corporate timidity. Everyone involved must be very proud.

Meanwhile. back in Redmond, a crack design team developed a truly innovative alternative — the Courier. Judging from the demo videos it would have made the iPad seem downright dowdy, and would have been well-suited to supporting real work.

So of course Microsoft killed it, no reason given. The guess from here: Microsoft didn’t have a platform to run it on. Windows takes too long to boot. The old Windows mobile OS was a joke. The new one isn’t even ready to run a smartphone yet.

Android would probably have done the job, but there’s just no way that would ever happen.

Which is exemplar #5: The Not Invented Here Syndrome, alive and well and not for sale at a Microsoft Store near you.

Comments (12)

  • Hi Bob – consider investing $5 in Dan Bricklin’s NoteTaker HD and $10 in an iPad stylus. Check out the movies!

  • I acquired an iPad several months ago and retired my 9 lb HP monster laptop. The iPad is ok as a communications device (email, Internet . . .) and as a very light duty office appliance.

    It does not duplicate the laptop (which duplicated my desktop). I miss the monster storage (60gb vs 600gb), the keyboard and the file system.

    I also miss the 7# that went away when I retired the laptop . . . but that is a good miss.

    So the iPad is ok and the tradeoff was net positive.

  • iPads are not a perfect, one-size-fits-all laptop replacement. BUT, they are very useful (and superior to laptops) in several contexts:

    * Doctors are crazy for the things, and not just for fun/cool – they walk from ward-to-ward and benefit from specialized apps that let them view patient charts, etc.

    * They’re fantastic for delivering presentations – they boot up much faster than laptops, and connect to projectors just as easily or easier. Light weight, easy to use, and self-powered.

    * They’re very handy for highly on-the-road access to email and many other basic services – the perfect compromise between the full-power-but-heavy-and-slow-startup laptop and the fast-and-light-but-too-small-to-read smart phone. Easy to use in an airport, bus, train, etc.

    * There are several other specialized applications that make the device super-handy, as long as you don’t expect it to COMPLETELY replace your desktop or laptop. Musicians, realtors, insurance adjustors, and many other professions benefit from the massive portability, speed, and long battery life.

    By the way, there ARE very nice stylii available for the iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch (e.g. http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/stylus) but I think handwriting recognition is a red herring. Even with a stylus on a device that has strong handwriting recognition, it’s a pain to use, and much slower than using pen-and-paper for the meeting and quickly transcribing later from a real or screen-based keyboard. PDA manufacturers discovered this – while the early Palm devices leveraged handwriting recognition with a stylus, those are virtually impossible to find now. People who type a lot want a keyboard, plain and simple.

    Agreed on several points, though – especially the timidity bit, and the Xoom example. You HAVE to have a distinctive value proposition when you’re taking on a player as dominant in the space as Apple is.

  • Hi Bob. I use Penultimate on my iPad to do exactly what you are talking about with respect to taking notes. It doesn’t do handwriting recognition (a challenge to any computer with my scrawl) but it is great at meetings taking notes as well as sketching ideas etc.

    • As I’ll describe next week, I use PhatPad for this purpose. It’s far from perfect, but better than anything else I’ve found for taking notes, specifically because I can take notes long-hand and batch-recognize them later on.

  • Dru

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    Well said. The American marketplace in general does seem to me to be overly driven by entertainment. It’s a sad mark of our culture. Instead of true innovation where a better world is possible, and/or making accomplishing work more efficient, we see domination by the entertainment industry, stroking our desires and wants. Where’s the press coverage of improved wells, vaccinations, and the like? It’s there but hard to find behind the overwhelming coverage of i-this-and-i-that. Sad.

  • Well said Bob. The opportunities lost at Motorola and Microsoft shared more than timidity and NIH. In both companies there was a belief they could figure out the market need from inside the company. Apple’s willingness to get products into customer hands, then change the product, has been critical to success. Apple, and to a large extent Google as well, views early launch not as success or failure but as a way to learn – and obtain the market input to adapt. At Motorola and Microsoft a belief that management is smarter than market input lead to overcommitment to product designs too early, and then a “dumbing down” of the products in an effort to make them more widely desirable. Working from the “inside out” was disastrous, where winners work from the “outside backward.”

  • Bob and I have discussed this in the past and I think we still disagree.

    After my own experimenting with the iPad, I do not see it as a strong internal business tool. I think it has remote possibilities, but not as a serious tool for meetings and flexibility.

    For me, the MacBook Air (or equivalent PC products) makes more sense. 11″ screen, very light, great keyboard, decent sized SSD. Easy to open and use in meetings and more business friendly network features. The iPad feels to much like an iPhone with miniature applications that can be very buggy, lack of decent local storage, and usually a reliance on the cloud more than a local network.

    For me the iPad is a consumer device. Great for games, some web surfing (minus flash), email, contacts, maps, etc. My iPhone does all of that already (on a smaller screen) and that makes the iPad redundant and not the power tool I need.

  • …and I’ll add, we are using iPhone tethering for remote laptops. So you get Internet connectivity anywhere by using a connection from the iPhone to a laptop (a MacBook Pro in my case). Works great and again gives me flexibility.

  • Doctors are crazy for [iPads] …they walk from ward-to-ward and benefit from specialized apps that let them view patient charts, etc.

    This is much more hype than real world. To safeguard patient confidentiality, hospitals have encrypted wireless security – something the iPad isn’t well suited for. Quite often, theirs is a Windows-centric environment and the apps to bridge that gap for the iPad are (currently) cumbersome at best. Even browser-based apps that hospitals use are very often Microsoft-centric and won’t even work on alternative browsers within Windows, much less on an iPad.

    Honestly, some of the target audience for the iPad are people for whom adapting to a fingertip-driven digital world can be more of a challenege than you’d imagine.

    The iPad is a consumption device – a very fun, snazzy consumer gadget – not a business tool.

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