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Tablets v. the World

Every time the topic of tablets versus laptops (and or smartphones) comes up, we end up in another endless debate about scenarios, consumption, productivity, keyboards, mice, screen size, multitasking, and more. In every case the debate centers around the core uses of “PCs” today—and PC is in quotes because the PC itself is a remarkably flexible device that has morphed over the years into many form factors. People study run-rates and trends and try to predict the demise of one over another and so on.

It isn’t so simple.  But it also isn’t so binary.

For more on this dialog, you can also catch a couple of podcasts from Benedict Evans and I (see a16z Podcast: Engineering a Revolution at Work and a16z Podcast: When Your PC Expires).

Disruption

Every disruptive innovation shares (at least) two characteristics.  First, the newly introduced technology is more often than not inferior in some key dimensions, while superior in some dimensions that in the current context seem to matter more.  Second, despite much consternation, the technology being disrupted is almost certainly going to remain a vital part of the landscape in some form or another for quite some time—either simply because of the long tail of legacy or because it serves a function that is not replicated at all.

What changes, however, is where the emphasis takes place around an ecosystem and with a, usually, broader set of customers. The ecosystem is not a static world and it too plays a vital role in the transition. Where the ecosystem is investing is always a leading indicator of where the transition is heading.

We can look at transitions such as entertainment (theater, radio, film, TV, video, streaming) or transportation (horses, boats, trains, cars, planes) or even storage (removable, hard drives, USB, flash) as examples of where these traits are demonstrated. Computer user-interface moving from characters to GUI to touch shows these traits as well.

The introduction of the iPad, and the modern mobile OS (and smartphones) in general, shows many of these characteristics.  The modern OS in combination with new hardware has many characteristics that separate it from the PC era including sealed case (non-extensible hardware), ultra-low power consumption, rich embedded graphics, touch user interface, app store, exclusively wireless connectivity, and more.  This is the new platform which is where so much innovation in apps is taking place.

Here is where the debate starts—some of those features are either not valued or true limitations when compared to the vastly more capable PC model. There’s no doubt about that. It is just a fact. Not only does the PC have a wider range and more “powerful” hardware options, but it also benefits from 20 years of software that drives a vast array of processes, devices, workflows, and more.  Tablet hardware is still immature relative to “PC standards” and apps do not seem to cover so many of the existing PC scenarios (even if they cover scenarios not even dreamed of or possible on PCs).

Hardware and Software

Two things are still rapidly changing that will account for a much broader transition from the dichotomy of tablet OR laptop today to a world where tablets with modern operating systems begin (or have begun) to replace many scenarios occupied by laptops.

We will soon start to see more innovation in tablets.

First, the hardware in tablets will benefit enormously from Moore’s law. While the pace of changes in smartphones (screen size, cpu, gpu, specs) has been faster than we have seen in tablets, my guess is we will soon start to see more innovation in tablets. In terms of both form factor and specs, tablets have been reasonably static since introduction. There are give or take two screen sizes and fairly modest spec bumps. My guess is that since the same vendors make both smartphones and tablets, the vast amount of energy has been focused on smartphones for now (just as when the PC industry shifted innovation from desktops to laptops and then swung back again to focus on all-in-ones).  I suspect we will start to see more screen sizes for tablets and more innovation in peripherals and capabilities, along with specs that benefit from the rapid progress in Moore’s law.

Second, all the hardware innovation in the world isn’t enough to drive new scenarios or even more dramatic replacement scenarios. The amazing innovation in software on smartphones shows what can take place when developers of the world see potential and tap into the power of a new platform.

Two Examples

I wanted to offer two examples of where the transition to tablets has been surprisingly “behind the scenes” and really out of sight, but very interesting from a technical perspective.

Many of us find ourselves in the AT&T store all too often because we’re adding a line, replacing a phone, getting a new SIM or whatever.  Over the past year or so, AT&T has aggressively rolled out iPads to replace the in-store PCs that were used for customer service. This is a massive software challenge. The in-store PCs had point of sale capability, bar code readers (for SIMs), and a large array of apps that drove the entire customer engagement (some of these apps ran Windows OpenStep believe it or not).

He kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.

If you happened to visit the store during the early stages of the transition, you would have been able to sense the frustration with the account managers.  There were many unfamiliar elements to the new apps on the iPads and worse there seemed to be many things that the desktop tools could do that the iPad apps could not.  For example, I got caught trying to merge two accounts and the rep was forced to call the regional call center to do the work and while on hold he kept telling me how frustrating it was to deal with the lack of capabilities of the new tools.  At the same time, the iPad had cool integration with portable bar code readers, the reps could easily show you what is on the screen to verify information (like picking a new phone number) and so on.

The transition is well underway now and I don’t think folks notice any more.

Today I spent a few hours with my friendly Comcast technician while he diagnosed something faulty with our cable signal.  While he has a fancy signal meter, most of the work he does is actually adjusting things via a remote app on an iPad.  Comcast technicians (as I learned, the ones in vans but not “bucket trucks”) were recently issued iPads. Sure enough during the visit he was on the phone to a central office and was saying “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

The tech said, “I have an iPad now and so without my PC I’m not able to get that measurement”.

I was having flashbacks to the frustrated AT&T reps. Turns out this technician used to have a PC and ran the same software as the tech at the other end of the phone (and in the bucket trucks). They are moving techs to iPads because they do not have to carry chargers; they are more resilient when dropped; and the integrated Verizon connectivity all make for a far more convenient service tool.  Plus things like entering the MAC address become much easier with bar code readers and the ability to use a much more agile form factor, as one example.

The conversation I had with a tech (always the anthropologist) was fun.  He said they have a whole tracking and feedback process that helps them to prioritize what features the software folks need to add to the apps being used in the field. Turns out, I’m guessing, they built some pretty elaborate desktop software that did just about everything since it was used on the ground and in the data center, but they likely had little understanding of just what was used and how often. The creation of new apps will drive a new level of customer service and technician capabilities, even if there are some hiccups along the way.

Broader Implications

These two examples are hard core line of business tools. We’re seeing the same thing in the line of business tools used by folks at all sorts of companies big and small. The new generation of mobile-first SaaS tools make it far easier to create “documents” for sharing and collaboration, access business information, or participate in business services from CRM to accounting to benefits.  The tools these are supplanting were developed over a decade and have tons of features and optimizations but lack the mobility and internet access that is so highly valued in a modern workplace. The transition will have some hiccups but is happening.

Along with these tools, so many of the tools for creation and production that are PC based on being reimagined and recast for modern work. We can see this revolution in Adobe’s work on photography for professionals with tablets, Paper and Penci from fiftythree, and of course the long list of productivity tools we talk about often on this blog. These tools do less, but they also do more. When combined with tablets and smartphones on modern platforms they enable a new view on the work and scenarios.

The characterization of tablets as “neither here nor there” or “in between tablet and a laptop” misses the reality that the modern nature of tablet platforms—both hardware and software—will drive innovation and subsequent transition for many many scenarios from traditional laptop platforms to tablet platforms.  We’re in the middle period where this is happening—just as when people said cars were too expensive for the masses and would not be mainstream or when the GUI interface lacked the hardware horsepower and “keystroke productivity” to replace character based tools.

New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined).

The traditional laptop will power hundreds of millions of endpoints for a very long time. But as the two examples here show, even in the most hardcore worlds where device integration meets custom software, there is a transformation and transition taking place.  New hardware and new software will surface new capabilities and scenarios not previously possible (or imagined). It won’t be smooth and it won’t please everyone immediately, but it is happening–just as both of those same scenarios transitioned from character to GUI.

It really is about the software. That change is happening all around us.

–Steven (@stevesi)

Written by Steven Sinofsky

May 6, 2014 at 3:30 pm

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