May 31, 2012

Why today’s tablets don’t really matter | Lean Back 2.0

Why today’s tablets don’t really matter

Let’s give credit where credit is due: At last count Apple had sold nearly 70 million tablets around the world. By comparison, the iPad is exactly 70 times more successful than the iPod, one of the most important pivot devices in electronics and computing history. So I come today not to bury tablets, but to praise them, and add a fair warning to those who think we — after years of technological struggle — have finally arrived at the resting point known as tablet nirvana.

We have not. Tablets are just the beginning rather than the end of the evolution of computing form factors. I will confess that my own employer, Forrester Research, has been a bit dishonest on this topic, with my assistance. We have published a lovely forecast of tablet adoption and penetration in the United States and much of Europe. But the forecast is a lie. Not because I don’t believe that 112.5 million US adults will have a tablet by year-end 2016; I do. It’s that the word tablet will be meaningless at that point. Unlike other computing form factors — the desktop, the laptop — the tablet will have no permanence whatsoever.

Apple has pretended to date that the 10-inch, keyboard-free iPad is the only iPad we should ever want. But we know that Apple will change that tune in the exact moment that it changes its lineup. Likely next steps for Apple include a 7-inch form and possibly a 14-inch form, one that is designed to hang on a wall in the dining room or rest on a dock in the kitchen more than it is designed to slip into your travel bag. And Apple’s eventual docking station for its iPad family will be far superior to the bluetooth accessories you can get today from other manufacturers. Expect expanded memory options, docks with one-button account login so different family members can port “their” iPads to whatever docks they want in the house and have instant recognition.

Surely, the future of these devices is much more interesting than even the overwhelmingly successful past. But the big cause of the future I describe is the shift from device power to platform power. I’ll spare you the long version I’ve been preaching in private meetings since 2009, but the short version is this: The power of computing in the 90s went squarely to the makers of the connections between computers. I’ll invoke AOL and cable broadband providers as proof of this. In the early 2000s, Apple began the pivotal shift away from connections to devices. By making devices that were just better than everybody else’s — in every dimension, especially the experience of the device — Apple taught other manufacturers to seek the same. And just as Samsung, LG, and even Microsoft are making headway with their devices around the world, Apple has now pushed on to the next horizon: the platform.

Platform is a word that has been long in use but is now in need of a focused update. By platform, I mean the collection of devices that one company ties together with its software experience, an experience that binds consumers to its current benefits and makes promises about future benefits that it must deliver to maintain that customer relationship. Thus, while iTunes is often referred to as Apple’s ecosystem play, it is really iOS that is Apple’s platform play, and iTunes is the face of it, extending iOS’s customer relationship into devices that Apple doesn’t even make.

Netflix is actually one of the first powerful platform companies on the planet. The Netflix brand was the first to reach into what are now over 100 devices, creating value for itself without having to invest in the connections or the devices themselves. Who else qualifies? Facebook is a platform, Amazon is a platform, and Windows Live is a platform if you see it through the lens of Xbox 360 Live, which is where it is strongest. Of course, Google also has a platform, though it’s hard to say whether it’s Android, Google Play, YouTube, or Chrome. For now we’ll just say Google’s search power is a platform, as it extends to just about every device out there, including a handful of devices Google makes.

Every single one of these platforms will succeed or fail depending on its ability to have a meaningful presence in the world of tablets. That is why Apple has the most important platform in the world right now. Microsoft has decided to pursue TV as its platform play, but I suspect the $300 million investment in Barnes & Noble will eventually reveal itself as an admission that you either play in the tablet game or you go home. Amazon’s tablet is arguably the second most important tablet in theUS, and Facebook is integrated into everyone else’s tablets without paying a dime.

Platform success will be critical to all of these companies and any others — including the digital disruptors I follow, each of them trying to exploit these platforms for their own gain, giving consumers better experiences at lower prices with more rapid innovation than the eras of connection or devices ever could have. Not to mention the analog era.

With tablets taking center stage in the platform drama that is unfolding before us, expect rapid innovation in form factors, certainly, but also in the types of services companies offer. We’ll have personal makeup assistants virtually present in our bathrooms, we’ll have digital doctors in our pockets, we’ll drink electronic sensors, and we’ll manage it all through a complex array of devices that will fade to the background of our own experience because all we will see is the platform that provides this smoothly directed personal play. And if you’re ahead of me, you realize that whoever produces that play – whoever owns that platform – owns that customer.

Now you see why today’s tablets don’t matter, tomorrow’s platforms do.

Top photo courtesy of bfishadow; bottom photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee. Both photos for use under a Creative Commons license.

Why today’s tablets don’t really matter | Lean Back 2.0

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