Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tablet thoughts

I don't know anything about Apple's tablet, and I generally don't pay much attention to the speculation about their unannounced products. However, John Gruber has a nice post today which discusses the hypothetical Apple tablet.

The best part is the core product question -- how does this new product fit in with all existing products? Revolutionary products are underestimated because we evaluate them relative to existing products. This quote gets it:
Like all Apple products, The Tablet will do less than we expect but the things it does do, it will do insanely well. It will offer a fraction of the functionality of a MacBook‚ but that fraction will be way more fun. The same Asperger-y critics who dismissed the iPhone will focus on all that The Tablet doesn't do and declare that this time, Apple really has fucked up but good.

That was certainly the case with the iPod, or as slashdot put it, "No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."

When considering revolutionary new products, we can not simply compare them with existing products, but must instead compare them with the products that don't yet exist, but should. For example, the PC was more than just an expensive, hard-to-use typewriter -- it was a whole new thing that just happened to have some typewriter features. Obviously this comparison is much more difficult than the "count the checkboxes" approach that we like to use when evaluating the "better mousetrap", but it's critical if we're going to understand or create anything truly new.

I have no idea what Apple is planning to release, but to me the revolutionary product need is in bridging the virtual and physical worlds. If you spend your entire day in front of the computer, this need may not seem real, but if you move between the two worlds you may notice that they are strangely disconnected. For example, imagine that I'm looking at a picture on my computer and want to give you a copy. In the physical world, I would simply hand you the print (I would have gotten double-prints), but with computers it's nearly impossible. Yes, there may be some complicated 10-step process that I can use to share the image, or maybe I can download and install some obscure software, but I'm not going to do that and neither are most other people. Imagine if I instead had a simple (built-in) gesture for passing the photo off to person standing next to me, and it were just as easy as handing them a real photo.

Of course exchanging photos is just one small example of these physical/virtual interactions. It's a whole new category, so many of them, including the most important, haven't been invented yet. However, you can get some ideas by thinking of the marketing cliche where two people are standing around a computer collaborating on something, taking quick notes, working off a recipe, etc. Those images occur in marketing because they are appealing, but they don't occur much in real life because our existing devices and software are awful. Current laptop computers are too bulky, awkward, and keyboard centric (the ui needs to be gesture-centric), and the iPhone is too small and limited. I want something about the size of a notepad that can be used naturally while standing up and walking around, just like an actual pad of paper, except that it's fully integrated with the virtual world as well as the physical world.

I hope this is what Apple is building -- it would be a great product. (or someone else could build it, though honestly I can't imagine anyone besides Apple getting it right)