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Tablets won’t be disruptive ’til the future gets here

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Most new words start out precisely describing specific concepts. But then (in business at least), repetition on the part of people who don’t know any better and are too busy or lazy to look it up eventually drains out all meaning beyond “good.” Or “bad.”

Take, for example, “disruptive technology,” which doesn’t mean “a technology that disrupts a marketplace.”

Clayton Christensen coined the term in his brilliant The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997), so basic good manners say he gets to define it. It’s supposed to describe technologies that, when first introduced, provide little or no value for current uses.

Christensen’s original case study looked at disk drives, starting with 8″ drive technology, which when introduced was far too limited to support the mainframe computers that constituted the main market for storage devices.

It was, however, perfect for the emerging minicomputer marketplace. Which did not make it disruptive.

Over time, 8″ drive capacity and performance improved, faster than the needs of the mainframe marketplace increased. Once the lines crossed … once 8″ technology was capable enough to support mainframe computers … it became disruptive, rapidly taking over as the dominant form of mainframe storage.

Minicomputers themselves followed this trajectory, becoming powerful enough to disrupt the mainframe marketplace after first succeeding elsewhere. So did personal computers and the open systems associated with them (not open source; that’s a different story).

All of which means we in the trade press should never describe any new technology as “disruptive.” The best we can do is predict that a new technology has the potential to become disruptive.

Take, for example, tablets.

The original Windows tablets — standard laptop computers with touch-screen extensions — were designed to be non-disruptive. But they violated KJR‘s Second Law of Successful New Product Introductions (see “Predicting Winning Products,” KJR, 2/8/1998), namely, affordability: A genuinely new product has to be priced low enough that doing nothing isn’t more appealing.

The iPad, in contrast, has terrific potential to be disruptive in the true sense of the term.

Its first qualification is that in its current state of development it’s of limited use for business computing. That’s as it should be for disruptive technologies, which are expected to incubate in entirely different marketplaces.

That Apple didn’t design the iPad for serious business use is clear. Speaking of clear, judging from the comments I received on last week’s column I wasn’t, at least regarding how I reached that conclusion. And so …

First and most basic: With only semi-compatible office suites and a browser that might or might not support even those enterprise applications that have been webified, all the talk of it being a laptop replacement includes this qualifier: “For people whose use is mostly limited to email and browsing the web.”

Then there’s note-taking, the canary in the business-use coal mine. While the ROI for replacing pens and pads of paper with tablets is asymptotically close to zero, that doesn’t matter. Once people start walking into meetings with tablets, taking notes on paper becomes stupid. Having created a tablet, why wouldn’t you make it better than pen and paper for taking notes in meetings?

Keyboarding notes isn’t acceptable. As I said last week, it creates a perception of rudeness, the keyboarders focused on their machines instead of the discussion … and that perception matters.

And, even if you are taking notes and not handling email because you’re bored … I’m an excellent typist, and even so when I’m typing my attention is on the keyboard and screen. When I’m writing, it’s on the conversation.

Next: Electronic ink isn’t good enough. The point of meeting notes is to help everyone who reads them understand what happened in the meeting. Raw, handwritten scribblings are a third-rate, lazy, disrespectful alternative.

So technology that turns electronic ink into editable text is essential. And, it has to do this, not in real time (this creates an incredible distraction from the act of writing), but after the meeting and note-taking are over, as a separate batch operation.

Exactly one iPad app — PhatPad — comes remotely close.

As also mentioned last week, writing means you need a decent stylus. Quite a few people told me there are plenty to choose from.

No, there aren’t. 127 years after Lewis Waterman patented the fountain pen we know what a pen should feel like in the hand and how it should put ink on paper. The best styluses available for the iPad are cylinders just over 4″ long and a quarter inch in diameter that replicate the experience of using a bad Bic knock-off.

Surely a company as cool as Apple could have done better had it wanted to.

* * *

Don’t worry, we’re not done! Stay tuned until next week’s exciting conclusion: Why you care (or should).

Comments (9)

  • Bob, thanks for the tip on “phatpad.” My ability to take notes in meetings is severely limited.

    Paper and pen results in a lot of marks that vaguely resemble words . . . but what particular works are often unclear.

    Typing on a laptop isn’t good . . . as you say, we concentrate on the typing, not on the flow.

    Recording isn’t good . . . for a lot of reasons.

    My best options have been flipcharts and markers (when I am facilitator) or projecting the screen of a laptop on the wall and using that as a flipchart/marker substitute.

    Memory is good . . . when it is good (and awful when not good)

    Not sure tablets help any of these options.

    John Blair

  • Bob – Your discussion on the failings of the iPad bring to mind the frustrations of technology in general – just trying to get things to work.

    In the past week I’ve dealt with numerous tech issues that stymied all attempts to use the tools that should have allowed me to be productive.

    It started with miserable Internet access in several European locations. High cost is an issue, but convoluted ‘plans’ poor connections, etc made it almost impossible for any meaningful work.

    I also made pre-trip arrangements with AT&T for use of SMS/MMS texts and calls at a more or less reasonable rate. Once over-seas, the only thing that worked was ‘text’ messaging. A waste of time and money.

    On the flight home, the new inflight entertainment system blanked out every minute or two for the entire flight. Could not be fixed en-route – 10 hours en-route.

    So, falling back to my new Dell XPS, for as long as the battery would last – no joy – the laptop ‘shutdown’ 3 times within an hour without warning or apparent reason. After 3 calls to support this week, Dell hasn’t even understood my problem, much less offer a fix (under full warranty).

    Ok – I know my tech troubles aren’t quite in-line with your business cases, but I think they are symptoms of a mindset that overlooks workability and dependability in pursuit of new features of dubious value.

  • Right on! Feeling “right” is of key importance. I remember talking to CISCO about making a VOIP phone that “felt” like an old Western Electric phone. They had no idea what I was talking about — but their competitors are beginning to get it — phones that have all the VOIP capabilities, but “feel” like “good ol'” telephones. The same with a stylus — if it does not “feel” like a pen, it sucks!

  • Just got the wife an ipad 2.
    It is hard to distill/define the the appeal, but I do like it.
    Meeting notes are low on the totem pole for me.
    Bob is right, we have not used it for any “real work”. But I’m curious if we can change that by using it for remote access to a “real pc”. As a “dumb terminal”, it has better battery life, and more appealing packaging than many other options.

  • You reminded me I wanted a copy of outsourcing debunked, and so I have one (which I’ll read on an iPad), thought you’d like to know that the people that bought your book also got “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” by David Hume. The price might have been right (free), but still, that’s pretty good company to keep.

  • With the tablet, I would think you would just record the meetings and use voice to text transcription or maybe go all the way and video record the meetings.

    Google voice translation is pretty good now so I’m thinking it will be used in more places. Yet Google does not seem to use it for Bluetooth hands free dialing on the Android phones.

  • Nearly 2 years ago when we first started hearing about the iPad, I had high hopes that Apple could revitalize handwriting. That is, I had hoped that Apple would make handwriting recognition mainstream.

    Just yesterday, I stealthily observed (for the third time) a woman in my department attempting to use her sparkling new iPad 2 to take notes during a meeting. In just over an hour, she managed to tap out a single paragraph consisting of 2 long-ish sentences. This ain’t progress.

    Now sure, you could mate a Bluetooth keyboard to the iPad so some serious word processing, but then you’ve turned your sleek tablet into an overpriced, mouseless netbook.

    This is an IT guy’s nightmare – there’s tremendous focus on tablet features and specs with surprisingly little concern about how or even if these snazzy consumer-grade toys can be used productively in a business setting. And when you start asking the kinds of tough questions that should be raised -before- purchasing equipment, you get little more than hype and shrugs.

    Tablets are a disruptive technology – just more in the pure sense of the word.

  • Hello Bob,

    You are consistently……correct in your analyses. When I can sketch and take notes where handwritten text eventually is converted to ASCII characters, in a method that is natural for writing, THEN I will equip my employees with that powerful tool. Otherwise, there is little improvement over writing on paper and scanning the notes into a PDF.

    Being “cool” rarely pays the bills….

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