26 December 2009

iSlate or how all these rumors of internet tablets could be solved

I have a very strong pedigree with both Tablets and consumer devices.  Long ago (in the early/mid 90’s) at Compaq I was involved with pen-based computing and mobile devices.  While the Concerto was finishing up when I joined, there were plenty of efforts afoot that were looking at new devices such as the General Magic’s Magic Cap, Microsoft’s first foray into a PDA with WinPad, the EO and a few other devices that have been lost to time.  Then in the late 90’s, I switched groups at Microsoft to become one of the founding members of the TabletPC team.  I later moved on to AOL where I was orchestrating AOL’s digital assets, audience, technology platform and mobile assets to create a mobile consumer entertainment platform.  This work led to the formation of Varia Mobile where we combined the technology (minus all of the AOL assets) into a portable media player and some demonstration cellular phones.  Had AOL stayed the course with their investments in content (and content solutions) or if Varia had been able to sell a larger visions and get funding, I’m willing to bet that we would have launched a product that would have been similar to the rumored mythical “iSlate” or Apple Tablet.

Over the course of this post, I’m going to layout the basic ingredients that are necessary for a successful product in this space.  And as you might know, I am available to be hired if you want to know how to actually mix the ingredients!  But before I can start, I need to make a clarification about Tablets.  There are several different types of Tablet devices and each were designed for specific niche needs – Microsoft TabletPC was designed for the knowledge worker and was first and foremost about capturing productivity while in meetings and other mobile situations.  UMPCs are about miniaturizing Windows and leaving it up to the user to figure out what to do with it.  MIDs or Web Tablets are generally being built as web devices that let the user connect over broadband (cellular, though some are WiFi) so that they can get access to the websites and data that they want regardless where they are at).  “Consumer Tablets” don’t exist quite yet, but the best examples of devices that are close to this space are the iPod Touch and the ZuneHD.  It’s from this Consumer Tablet space that iSlate or next great device will be born. 

The ingredients:
-         Killer hardware
Most of this is obvious, but the key factor is to make sure that the overall weight to power consumption ratios is balanced.  Today this probably means a screen between 7- 11” utilizing an ARM-based processor rather than an Intel Atom or similar x86 platform.

-         Purpose built user interface and OS
The OS for this device needs to be thoroughly optimized for both performance of the particular hardware and for ease of use for the main tasks.  Generic Windows or Linux shell (including Android as is) aren’t robust enough at creating the ease of use experience necessary.  This device needs a world class interface!

-         Engaged developers / partners
Steve Balmer chants “Developers, Developers, Developers!” and Steve Jobs does as much as possible to entice and excite development partners to build custom applications.  This is absolutely necessary for the device to move forward – it doesn’t, however need 100,000s of applications, but rather it needs an interface that allows the techno-geeks to build some strong and compelling examples of what can be done (and get paid to do it!).  The good and great applications can come later (as long as there are a few to begin with).

-         A media ecosystem
Just having access to a media library such as Amazon on Demand, NetFlix, EpicHD, Hulu, Flickr, YouTube, iTunes, Rhapsody or Zune isn’t enough.  These services need to be built directly into the user interface of the device in compelling fashions. A link to them isn’t sufficient; the user needs to have the experience of the media be not only seamless but effortless.  And of course media isn’t just music, movies, TV and photos, it encompasses a wide breadth of the entertainment (and communications) users enjoy – Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, AIM, etc.  And of course all this media needs to be deliver to the device with an intelligent and efficient architecture.

-         Intelligent utilization of other network devices
Just because you built this one device you can’t ignore all the others that the user may have!  Content, data and other important information exists throughout the technology sphere of the user.  Their phone, their home PC or Media Center has a role to play with this device.  If you don’t capitalize on it, than you’re missing out on the role that can be played here.

-         Marketing pizzazz!
If you build it, they won’t come unless you’re ready to spend some cold hard cash to market this device to those who don’t realize what they’re missing.  It’s an obvious fact, but often times the inventor or manufacturers think that just getting it into the market is enough.  Plenty of great devices have been built over time, but have never succeeded since they weren’t marketed to their audience

-         Willingness to wait until the ecosystem is ready
Even if you build the absolutely-most-insanely great product of all time, if the market isn’t ready, if the technology isn’t ready, if you’re ecosystem partners aren’t all there or if you’re not ready to market the device properly – then for this class of device you should wait.  Releasing without all of these factors ready is likely to backfire since the purpose and greatness of the device will be lost on the majority of people for whom it was destined.

Guess what?  Apple already has or knows how to do all of these things and already has the fundamental building blocks to execute.  They clearly have the hardware, software and developers already primed.  Their integration of media is beyond most with not only access to iTunes, but all of ABC/Disney’s content plus all of the rumors of talks with magazine publishers and other studios.  Apple has devices in the living room with which to integrate – wouldn’t this product be a great control/companion to an AppleTV product?  Does anyone know marketing better than Steve Jobs?  And finally Steve clearly understands about not releasing products until they are completely ready!

Does anyone else?  Microsoft can get pretty close to most of these things, but clearly doesn’t own or control a media empire nor is it within Microsoft’s DNA to wait on a project – usually it will keep iterating in the market place until it gets it right.  This leads to some great ideas failing prematurely (e.g. the market wasn’t ready) and others floundering around and getting marginalized by others who can do it better.  This isn’t Google’s forte, but they seem willing to take lots of risks if the overall rewards are worth it in the end (e.g. increase the advertising revenue).  Intel, Acer, Asus, HP, Dell?  No, no, no, no and no.  Sony could be an interesting entrant in this space, but for one reason or another they don’t appear to be willing to take the large risks lately.  What about companies like Nokia, HTC, Sagem or Archos?   Nokia outside of the US might be able to get pretty close to this ideal, the N900 is pretty good and their entry of a netbook while expensive was also well executed – they do have all the raw ingredients, but definitely don’t get much credit in the US.  HTC is interesting and clearly has the design capability and is a quick learner whose recent marketing efforts were quite well done, but they lack the developer reach and media ecosystem.  Sagem has a lot of the relationships to get it done, but again no one in the US knows how they are.  And finally Archos has a small name brand presence and has been trying to dabble into this space, but I believe they lack the creativity to pull this off.

This isn’t to say that someone can’t take all of the ingredients mix them together properly and execute on it, they can and I’m available to help!  If you want to learn more about what it takes to succeed in this space, feel free to contact me and we can go from there.

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