Sunday, April 04, 2010

If the iPad succeeds, will the Internet dumb down?

I think there is little disagreement that television is mostly a dumbed-down wasteland, with most programs targeted at the largest possible audience, thereby seeking the lowest common denominator.  Interestingly, the consumer of TV content have no means of producing content -- content production & distribution is an expensive proposition and is controlled by a relatively small number of operators. On the internet (or more correctly, on the WWW), on the other hand, every consumer is potentially a producer. Since the cost of production and distribution of content is very low, and since every consumer can in fact be producer if he or she so chooses, content on the internet need never seek the lowest common denominator. And while there is plenty of content that is of very low quality or of little or no interest to anyone, there is also an amazing quantity and variety of very high-quality of content. Indeed, this is one quality that the web shares with the written or print medium where the cost of production of content is also relatively low; indeed, the web is superior to print (which, in many ways, is better than television).

The magic of the Web is that most web content is consumed using devices -- PCs and laptops -- that may be used for both consuming and producing content.  The TV, on the other hand, is a consumption-only device. Quite alarmingly, Apple is nudging the market in the direction of consumption-only devices like the iPad. Sure, one can purchase a keyboard and use it to produce content, but the device's design is biased towards consumption, not production. PCs and laptops, on the other hand, demand that the user employ the keyboard and the user is hence already in a mode in which he or she is prepared to generate content -- a full-fledged keyboard, after all, is a device meant primarily to generate content.

If the iPad changes user behaviour such that people increasingly prefer to consume content on the web rather than produce it, there may come a time when the economies of scale make web content production oriented devices become relatively expensive to purchase in the market.  Note how this sort of thing has happened in other industries -- automobiles are purchased fully formed, and the vast majority of car owners do not modify or upgrade them.  With the Macintosh, Apple initiated the trend towards Sealed Shut devices and by eliminating the keyboard, we are being gently persuaded (seduced, in fact, by the beautiful technology) to just sit back and enjoy whatever is provided by application developers and Professional Content Providers and not bother ourselves with producing anything.  If this trend continues, I fear that the web will degenerate in a manner not unlike the sordid world of television. And what a great loss to human society that would be.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Apple iPad: No camera, by Design. And that's a good thing!

So everybody and his aunt have their netherwear in a knot about the iPad's putative shortcomings. Complaints about the iPad run the gamut from "meh", "lame", "no camera", "no flash", "no SD card", "no USB", and a whole lot more. One is reminded of the geek response to the introduction of the original iPod.

"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame." Thus wrote Rob Malda alias Commander Taco of the geek blog Slashdot, on October 23, 2001.

This estimation of the iPod's value is now the stuff of legend. It is frequently cited as an example of how projections of the value of new technologies can be way off. In particular, it is suggested that very technically oriented people tend to under- or over-estimate the value of consumer-oriented technologies because of their inability empathize with ordinary, computer illiterate or -phobic people. Or people, period.

Let's just address the Matter of the Missing Camera. The iPhone has a camera today, and the iPad is in some ways a grown up iPhone, especially the model with built-in 3G connectivity. If the iPhone could have a camera, doesn't it make sense for its older brother to have one too? Duhhhh! Or so the reasoning goes.

A little bit of reflection will reveal that the iPad can never be a grown up iPhone even with all the of the iPhone's guts inside it. Let's try a little Design Thought Experiment.

Scenario 1. Imagine the iPad with a lens on its back, like the iPhone. This would be the usual location for a lens in order to use the device to shoot stills or video. Is the iPad's form factor ergonomically suitable for such an activity? Absolutely not. The iPad would make a very inconvenient camera or camcorder: it's just too big and has the wrong shape for such an activity. A camera or camcorder needs to be small and convenient to hold in one's hand or palm while one shoots.

Scenario 2. Now imagine the iPad with a lens on the front, like on a MacBook (or most laptops on the market today). This would be the required lens location to use with Skype or other videoconferencing tool. Let's consider the ergonomics of this: Where would one hold the iPad for a Skype video conference? Would one hold it up with both hands in front of the face? How long before the arms begin to grow weary? Okay, maybe one could hold it on one's lap; but then, how long can one keep looking down at the camera before one's neck begins to hurt? Perhaps one might want to use it in bed, with ones knees bent up and propping up the iPad. In any one of these cases, will one's arms ever be free to do anything else like taking notes?

A camera may be a fun thing to have at least initially, but Apple's usability tests likely revealed that camera use on iPad prototypes rapidly tapered off. Placing a camera on the iPad is at best marginally useful to a very small fraction of iPad users. Apple's designers have thought through this matter very well -- a camera on the iPad is a frill that may show up in a future version because the Unthinking Masses (including Design Students, sadly) demand it. But for now it makes little sense for the target market.

Now is a camera nice to have? Sure! But why stop there? There are practically an endless number of features and functions that are nice to have. Design is a compromise; one is finally compelled to make choices else the resulting product will end up costing too much, being too heavy, occupying too much space, requiring extra careful handling, being too complex and inconvenient to use, etc. The designer is compelled to carefully explore a variety of user and use scenarios -- use cases, in the technical jargon -- and then narrow down on a few appropriate ones. Apple decided that the iPad -- at least at launch -- was not meant for geeks, but was to be a simple appliance easily usable by (and providing some level of delight to) just about anybody, and targeting just a few key functions. Apple stripped the iPad down to its essence based on their targeted use cases. In design, one cannot please all of the people even some of the time. Frequently, one settles for satisfying many of the people most of the time.

I suspect there is a substantial market for the iPad in precisely its current form. It may not satisfy the most vociferous among the whiners, but there are going to be a large enough number of very happy users.

This is not to say that the iPad will not "evolve" -- a misnomer, because unlike with nature, changes wrought in artifacts are intentional, by design -- with time. Features may be added (or removed) to meet the demands of users others than those originally intended. We saw this happen with the Macintosh. At its introduction in 1984, the Macintosh was presented as an appliance packaged in a single box with a tiny 9", black and white screen, a single floppy drive, 128KB of RAM and no expandability. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who had taken over the Mac project from Jef Raskin, envisioned the Mac as a "computer for the rest of us", meaning computer illiterates and computer phobes, not geeks; he wanted to keep the device very simple. Other classes of users liked the good things about the Mac but wanted all the negatives removed. Eventually, Steve Jobs was ejected from his position and left Apple. Soon after, the Macintosh II was introduced, which looked like a more conventional PC, with a box containing the business end of the machine and a separate CRT monitor sitting on top of it. The Mac II came with a much larger display, had the capacity to display color, included a hard disk drive, and provided expansion slots: practically everything that an experienced PC user might seek. While all of this was wonderful in many ways, the Macintosh was no longer the simple, easy to comprehend and use appliance it was meant to be.

The iPad, in a very significant way, is the Macintosh 128K rebooted -- the simple appliance that fits Steve Jobs vision: it is the spiritual inheritor of the 128K. And that's not a bad thing at all. From the iPad, will spring forth the "iPad II": the spiritual equivalent of the Macintosh II, to satisfy the clamoring and cravings of the geek crowd. But won't necessarily make the iPad II superior to the simple appliance that Steve Jobs launched last Wednesday.

The Religious Dimension of Apple Innovation & Design

So, the Apple iPad is out -- launched, anyway, although not available for purchase for a couple of months. As I had expected, a few things become clear about Apple's DNA

  • The iPad conforms to Apple's signature styling -- superb and classy, but not "innovative": it's about what was expected by those who know Apple
  • The iPad conforms to what Apple cognoscenti expected in terms of usability: very usable but no head-turning innovations there
  • The iPad is based on existing technology -- while the A4 processor is new, it is based on the well-established ARM architecture
So where is Apple's much vaunted "innovation" in all this? Isn't Apple among the Most Innovative Companies out there, at least as per BusinessWeek and other such hyperventilating media outlets?

I suppose it is; provokes one inquire into the meaning of "innovation" doesn't it?

Apple is a classic case of not innovating for it's own sake. Apple does not push the envelope much in terms of underlying technology. It ensures that its products are easy -- and even a joy -- to use. And it employs dazzling but tasteful styling to wrap all this up. Importantly, Apple addresses the needs of influential persons who may not be representative of its prime market but who are vocal in their opinions and which are widely disseminated. The aesthetics of its products as well as their usability plus the buzz generated by opinion leaders persuade users to rationalize (in Apple's favor) about any technological or other shortcomings.

The halo effect of the aesthetics and usability of Apple products influences users to persuade themselves that the underlying technology is innovative.

There are likely other technology developer/vendors that are as good or better than Apple along key product dimensions. But Apple has that extra religious aura that resists replication (and which it assiduously nurtures). Religions demand irrational behavior and are often associated with charismatic individuals and ideologies. Those who try to draw lessons from Apple's success must also pay attention to its religious aspects; rational analyses of the kind spewed out by business schools cannot accommodate this extremely significant dimension and therefore may lack the power to comprehensively explain the company's success . Reason may convert a few but dogma, ideology, a messianic zeal and a requirement of absolute faith is needed to reach the masses.

This last matter Apple understands like no other technology vendor in the world. Think of it: Steve Jobs is an often foul-mouthed, cantankerous and abusive leader, but has attracted a mass following. In some religious orders, God is an angry, jealous, omnipotent and vengeful entity, despite which he has no dearth of supplicants.

But they are unlikely, ever, to teach you this at Harvard -- or pretty much any other business -- School.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


So, on the eve (actually morn) of Apple's latest -- and ostensibly greatest -- announcement (of the so-called iSlate or iTablet), and possibly the Great Steven P Jobs' last significant product launch gig before he passes on to his reserved throne on Mount Olympus, here are my thoughts on what Apple has wrought, over it's 35-odd year history.

Most people associate Apple with innovation, and more narrowly, design. Since, "to innovate", by definition, means to bring something new into being, most people assume or claim that Apple, being an innovator, is the first out the gate with some category of product. Microsoft, on the other hand, always follow someone else's lead, usually Apple's and is therefore an imitator, not an innovator, goes the argument. Such reasoning, unfortunately, oversimplifies the reality; indeed, the situation doesn't merit even simplification for this obscures or confounds the truth.

Apple has never been the first out with any category of product: before the Apple ][ (or even Apple I) there was the Altair, and several other personal computers; Apple didn't invent personal computing. Before the Apple Macintosh and desktop publishing was the Xerox Alto and Star and Xerox laser printers. Before the iPod were several brands of MP3-based music players, most notably, Creative Labs' Nomad. Before the iPhone was the Palm Treo and RIM Blackberry. And before the much anticipated iSlate, there have been several Windows or non-Windows based tablet computing platforms. And of course, before Pixar, there was Walt Disney.

What Apple does bring to the party is not entirely new products or new categories -- in this respect, Apple is hardly better than Microsoft. Apple's most significant contribution is in designing products that look and feel and most importantly, work, better. While there is likely a great deal of earth-shaking innovation happening in Apple Labs, from a market perspective, Apple has never innovated for innovation's sake: which is why it has never been the first out with a product category. On occasion, when it has tried to pioneer product categories, it has flopped, miserably, as in the case of the Apple Newton.

Most of Apple's efforts at innovation have been to generate better designs, not new product categories, or even new markets. Apple looks at an existing market and says to itself, how can we seize or grow this market through better design? Apple looked at the portable music player market and seized it through the excellently designed iPod. They looked at the music publishing market and gained access to it through a better music distribution service, iTunes. They looked at the cellphone market and are in the process of turning it upside down through the versatile iPhone.

Apple focuses attention on markets and systematically investigates how innovation can help them enter, expand, transform and dominate existing markets through better design. Now, it might appear that this is what other corporations do: conduct market research, and introduce products that meet market needs.

It isn't.

Apple never seeks to meet market needs -- Apple's goal is to absolutely stun the market into submission through better design. Apple's products are never ho-hum -- they seek to make customers and reviewers crave obsessively for their products. Apple never comes down to the market's level -- it dictates terms to the market. Once they begin dominating a market, they begin steering it in the direction they wish it to go.

Human beings are attuned not only to functionality, but to beauty and aesthetics. Just the one or the other alone may not hold a person's interest very long, but the two in combination make for a highly potent mix. Apple also never complicates its offerings. At least initially, Apple's products do one thing extremely well. Anybody can comprehend Apple's products without even trying.

Apple is unttainable and yet Apple's products are accessible. Apple tantalizes customers with the hope that some day they might become as worthy of praise as its products; but for now, they hope that some of the shine from Apple products rubs off onto them merely by being in their close proximity.

Now that, to me, appears to be the secret to Apple's magic.


Also read Why the Apple Tablet is a Games Changer by Robert Fabricant