It is said that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. The past one year has showed us that the tablet market is no less forgiving, with the bodies of HP, Motorola and RIM having washed up on shore.
Pricing-premium strategies and market vagaries aside, the question of why the ‘tablet market’ is really the ‘iPad market’ offers an interesting perspective on the underlying technology dynamics that are at play.
The issue with Android-based tablets, which so far have had the best shot at the throne, is that to the average user, they don’t seem as “nice as the iPad”. Apple’s remarkable advancements in design and multi-touch capacitive technology (which is why the touch seems “just right”) have resulted in the iPad becoming the golden standard. Thus the maxim — it is not the iPad versus the other tablets; it’s the iPad versus tablets.
The secret of the iPad’s spell-binding success lies in the field of invisible technology, an area which designers and businessmen have exploited to get past the simple fact that innovation in technology is fast outstripping consumer comprehension. The goal of invisible technology is very similar to that of the doorknob phenomena. Everybody uses a doorknob at least once a day, but the only time you realize you are using one, is when it stops working.
A common complaint of Microsoft’s Windows operating system is that it constantly demands attention, with numerous tiny features screaming out — distracting the user from the task at hand. Contrast this to Apple’s OS X or iOS and the fundamental differences in design philosophy becomes apparent.
In the tech-world, while good tools are unobtrusive, great tools are invisible. That humans interact with tools at nearly every moment of their lives, would be stating the obvious. Mature areas of technology, however, have become so optimized that users no longer think about their individual interactions with them. Heat generation, for, instance has been around for so long that one doesn’t have to stop to think about one’s stoves’ user interface. Cars are similarly invisible, at least in the basic no-frills model.
The original iPad was not a trailblazer in its openness, features, or its screaming capabilities. Indeed, the Samsung Galaxy Tab and newer contenders such as the Google Nexus 7 are far better in these categories. When media commentators and analysts exclaim that Apple’s products “just work”, what they really mean is that the products have become nearly invisible.
The academic-turned-designer Don Norman once spoke about how, at one time, people could actually buy a ‘kitchen motor’ that would attach to a number of useful devices such as mixers and blenders. When motor technology advanced, however, motors disappeared – becoming just an implicit part of other devices that we consider for their primary function and not for the fact that they contain motors.
That desideratum — get the job done and then be unobtrusive is how the iPad wowed its target market. It is no surprise that Mr. Norman has been with Apple since the Macintosh was first developed.
However, the competition is learning quickly from the tablet graveyard with Google, Microsoft and Samsung determined to catch-up to the invisible standard, while playing to their own strengths.
Google in specific is not likely to forget the spectacular failure of Motorola’s Xoom, which when initially launched to counter the original iPad, came with a steep learning curve. It consequently fell flat at retail.
True to their words, however, the market looks ready to be shaken up with the arrivals of the Nexus 10 and Surface in the coming months. However, even as the ‘tablet revolution’ leaves the general consumer behind as more bells and whistles are constantly added, the move towards invisible technology will be a cornerstone in driving future products.