Thinking of tablets only as a new form factor misses the point

Happy people with new iPads. Credit: dee and tula monstah via Flickr

Forrester analyst JP Gownder has an interesting blog post today about the fragmentation (his word) of the tablet market into many different sub-markets. 

As an analogy, he uses the automotive market. Yes, there are cars and trucks -- which Steve Jobs likened to the iPad and the traditional PC. But there are also many subcategories of vehicles based on size, use case, fuel consumption, and  many other factors. Think SUVs, subcompacts, minivans, hybrids, subcompacts, and on and on. 

He believes the tablet market is fragmenting in a similar fashion. Three years ago, the de facto standard was the 10-inch iPad. Now there are many different sizes, including phone-tablet hybrids, and at least three viable operating systems -- iOS, Android, and Windows 8, plus the Amazon Kindle fork of Android (which is Android only in the guts) and Windows RT (which hasn't yet proven viable, but has a big wealthy backer with lots of persistence). 

His point is that the tablet market is fragmenting into different niches, and soon it may no longer be relevant to speak of "tablets." He also notes that it's important for users to be able to "hand off" data and experiences between all their different computing devices.

But he's missing a huge glaring point. The interesting thing about the rise of the tablet market isn't the form factor. It's the fact that Apple broke a 25-year-old platform monoculture by focusing on simplicity.

When Jobs was making his point about the post-PC world, he wasn't only (or even primarily) talking about the fact that the iPad was compact and cool enough to carry everywhere, and had enough battery life for a trans-Atlantic flight. 

He was framing it as an ease-of-use argument. Here's the quote:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people. … I think that we’re embarked on that. 

The PC, he argued, was too much computing machine for the vast majority of users. Back when it was the only option, everybody bought one. But simpler computers, exemplified (Jobs thought) by the iPad, would eventually replace them.

Think about what iOS really did. It abstracted complexity beyond what previous mass market computing platforms had done. All apps were available from one source, vetted to ensure they weren't carrying malware, and installed with one click. There was no provision to have two apps open side by side. There are almost no peripherals to install or configure. You seldom have reason to visit the "Settings" menu. There's no need for antimalware software. And the devices are sold in a clean, well-lit store staffed by helpful people who can explain technology in simple terms. 

This is the model that Google pursued with Android, although Google being Google, it offered a lot more room for geeks (and malware purveyors) to tinker. Chrome OS is a similar effort, but focused on web apps. It's also the model that Microsoft is pursuing with Windows RT, and to some degree with the modern/Metro interface in Windows 8, although the old Windows with all its settings and menus is never far from the surface.

Don't underestimate the power of this simplicity. In the last month, I've gotten two calls from a non-technical relative. The first came when she kept getting weird warning messages from the adware that she accidentally installed with a game she wanted to play ("but it was on Google!"). The second came after she fell for an old scam in which callers pretend to be from Microsoft tech support and show her how many error messages she has on her machine, then offer to sell her a new perpetual license to some software that cleans them up -- these errors are actually from the Windows Event Viewer and are essentially meaningless. (She realized it was a scam and hung up before any serious damage was done.)

The tablet revolution isn't just about size and form factor. It's about making computing more approachable for the millions of people who don't work in the tech industry and don't read computer publications every day.

That's what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said we were in a post-PC world. That's why tablets are taking off in the consumer market, and that's why they're slowly invading the enterprise as well -- simplicity means fewer helpdesk calls and malware cleanups.

That's the revolution that Microsoft and traditional PC vendors must respond to.

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