This article first appeared in the August 11 issue of Sahara Time.
As it is my habit every morning on waking up, I grabbed my spectacles, and scanned the news to see what I had missed in the past eight hours. And one item jumped out at me:
“iPad Helps Apple Snag No. 1 PC Spot from HP”.
Let’s read that again. S-l-o-w-l-y.
The iPad – a product in a category that didn’t even exist three years ago, had overtaken the number one manufacturer of PCs – a product category that has existed for more than thirty years. More people were buying Apple’s device than PCs from the erstwhile industry leader HP.
Given that I was reading this news item on my own iPad (as I have since April 2010), I could understand how this could happen. In fact, it wasn’t even unexpected. But it certainly let me pause and reflect on the fact that I had just watched history pass another milestone.
Time to reflect on how this came to be…
The Story So Far
People have tried to bring computer tablets (and later “tablet PCs”) to life ever since they watched Star Trek back in the 1980s. The idea of holding a slim, light, easily readable device that was a window into the vast information streams that now rule our lives was an idea whose time had definitely come.
Even in the 1980s – the heydays of PCs – it had become apparent that users loved the idea of information access. Online services such as BBSs (Bulletin Board Services), massive services like CompuServe and AOL were booming. People were hungry for information, but were limited by available access methods. And while they enviously watched Captain Picard scan information on his Star Trek PADD (Personal Access Display Device) anytime, anywhere, they were forced to go to the desk where their PC was installed, switch it on, watch it boot for minutes, and painfully go online, then peck out requests for information.
Unbelievably, this state continued for 30 years. While several manufacturers attempted to bring out “Tablet PCs”, all failed for one simple, fundamental reason:
People didn’t want Tablet PCs.
In fact, they didn’t want PCs. Even worse – they didn’t really want computers.
I don’t want to use a computer
To illustrate the core issue, I like using the example of my own wife.
Shubha has been married to a geek (me!) for more than 25 years. In all those years, I tried my best to get her to use PCs, smartphones, PDAs, the internet, and what not. My house was always well-filled with all these things, but Shubha simply wasn’t interested. She is by no means a Luddite, but to her, priorities, and ways of addressing them, were different. I (and later our daughter) and our information devices were her “Voice Activated Personal Information Access Devices”. If she needed some information, she would ask one of us, and we would dig it out.
But she wouldn’t use a PC. Or a smartphone. Or a PDA.
So imagine how I felt one morning in 2011, when I heard voices coming from the kitchen, and went to investigate.
There, standing at the stove, stood my wife, trying out a new recipe. No stereotyping here – Shubha is an unbelievably great cook, and loves trying out new recipes.
But that wasn’t what stunned me.
What stunned me was that to one side of her, propped up precariously, stood one of our iPads, playing a full-screen YouTube video of a lady preparing the dish that Shubha was trying out, and my “non-tech” wife was following the instructions, occasionally pausing the video, rewinding when needed, and generally using the iPad as if she had been using it all her life.
And when I asked her how she was suddenly using a computer, her reply summed it all up in one neat sentence:
“It isn’t a computer!”
Suddenly, a huge light went on over my head. I now understood, better than ever, why the iPad (and tablets in general) had succeeded where the PC had failed.
People don’t want to be tied to computers (or technology). They want to use devices like they use a wristwatch – without thinking about specifications, arcane commands, keyboards, or any of that technological mumbo-jumbo that we geeks like to indulge in.
It is pretty clear to me now that what Steve Jobs unlocked back in 2010 was an entire (and massive!) market filled with people who simply didn’t want to use computers, but wanted to use the information that devices could give them access to.
And we had failed these people for decades, by making them learn to use PCs, arcane and complex applications, and restricting them to specific locations where they could access this information.
Even a notebook computer is not really a “mobile” device (to use it, you have to sit down somewhere, preferably with power and internet access). Smartphones are useful, but in many ways too limited for these people, who really wanted a “lean-back device” to get at what they wanted – without having to squint at tiny screens.
And without having to think about the fact that they are using technology.
A friend of mine called this the “00:00″ problem – referring to the millions and millions of VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders) that could be seen flashing “00:00″ on their front panels, because setting the correct time (every time power was restored to the unit!) was just too much trouble for the average user.
Tablets succeeded in capturing a previously untapped market for a simple reason – they are not computers. They are not technology. They are nothing more than an intuitive, easily mastered window into all the information streams of our lives.
Even the design of applications for tablets is so dramatically different from what we used to see on PCs. There are no menus, no arcane commands to remember. The tablet has forced developers to create applications that work intuitively, rather than becoming useful only after extensive training. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs – “If you need a manual, you blew it”.
We are also beginning to see the impact of this not just in the “non-tech” world, but even in the enterprise world.
All of a sudden, corporate IT is faced with the demand for tablets and tablet applications, and are forced to dramatically change the way they present information. And at the same time, they are beginning to see themselves being sidelined as their users are beginning to cut through enterprise-enforced computer use policies, changing access and security paradigms.
As I write these words in mid 2012, I am pretty certain that we are now seeing the end of 30 years of “personal computing”. Because tablets have, now and forever, relegated the very term “computing” to the history books.
And that is a good thing.
Because people don’t want to use computers.