Remember coffee before Starbucks? Coffee used to cost pennies, now costs dollars. What did Starbucks do to convince people to drive out of their way, stand in line, wait for coffee to be made, then shell out $4 for the privilege? Mike Elgan thinks Apple is doing the same thing.
Starbucks transformed a generic commodity into a brand-name experience that people seek out. But the miraculous bit is that they changed American (and later, global) culture. Coffee is still coffee. They didn’t change the product as much as they changed the customer.
To move computer users away from the standalone keyboard and standalone screen, Apple introduced the touch screen iPhone. Step One in a series of steps to change popular culture, ala Starbucks.
They’re forcing those of us who want to use an iPhone to accept the on-screen keyboard. Later this year, when the rumored Apple touch tablet is likely to ship, everyone will be so happy with a larger version of the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard. Had they shipped the tablet first, we no doubt would have complained about that keyboard. But since they’ve lowered our expectations with the iPhone keyboard, we’ll love the tablet’s.
I’m not convinced that Apple lowered expectations with the iPhone keyboard. Changed expectations, perhaps. Elgan carries the premise too far, too fast.
I think the initial tablet will feature a 10-inch touch screen. The keyboard will probably span the screen. Then they’ll ship a 13-inch tablet. Then a 15-inch. By the time they ship a 27-inch desktop touch tablet (used at an angle like a drafting board), we’ll be just giddy with excitement about how wonderful the on-screen keyboard is.
Sorry. That won’t happen. Touch screen desktop PCs have been around for 25 years and have yet to make a dent in the market. Why? It’s mouse and hand vs. shoulder, arm, hand, and fingers. The mouse does the same thing and does it easier, better, faster, more precisely (with the exception of standalone kiosks, of course).
Apple led the mob that practically killed off the audio CD by getting us all into the habit of shopping for music in iTunes, rather than at Tower Records. Their tablets will lead a similar attack on renting movies at Blockbuster. Instead, we’ll download movies from Netflix and iTunes via our tablets. I believe they’ll also drive the Huluization of television, which is where TV is something that exists in a searchable online database, and shows will be something you “subscribe” to.
This reminds me of the old Popular Mechanics magazine articles which highlighted future products, most of which never saw the light of day. Subscriptions? Don’t we have that with Cable TV already? Music subscriptions haven’t exactly taken the download world by storm, either.
But the iPhone, and later the tablet will change our thinking on software even further. Rather than thinking of a software application as some massive, do-everything product, we’ll increasingly view software as apps, widgets or small features that are cheap and instantly available all the time. We’re already experiencing this with the iPhone. It’s getting to the point where its easier to download an app than find one already installed on your own phone.
We’ve been buying software online for many years. That’s not new, but Apple’s App Store makes the process wonderful on the iPhone. Will Apple move the same model to the iTablet device? That’s a given.
Five years from now, your PC will be an all-touch, no-keyboard giant tablet that replaces your cable box and DVR and facilitates the downloading and installation of software one small feature at a time. Apple is already working on the technology. And—don’t look now—but Apple is working on you, too.
Such prognostications sound plausible. I use my hand and fingers (and thumb) to navigate my iPhone and any one of nearly 180 apps, games, utilities, widgets, yes. But that’s a requirement due to the device’s size. A keyboard for a cell phone, handheld computer, et al, is silly, yes. Even a wireless tablet (think very large iPhone or iPod touch) can get by for multimedia use, and act as an excellent digital magazine, newspaper, or book. Even video and audio conferencing via a tablet seems ready to hatch.
No keyboard or mouse required, right?
Unfortunately, pocket and tablet devices will not replace my Mac or PC, but must learn to peacefully coexist. What about email? Database entry? Reports and documents? Spreadsheets? Graphic design? Multimedia development? Sorry, until voice recognition gets a whole lot better, we’re stuck in the 21st century with 19th century tools—the keyboard. And a 20th century tool. The mouse.
Tablets and pocket-sized devices trade precision and efficiency (try writing an article on an iPhone keyboard) for mobility and convenience. Five years from now we may use handheld devices far more than now, but the new doesn’t easily eliminate the old.
Apple is not training us to use new touch technology to transplant the Mac and PC experience with keyboard, mouse, trackpad, and screen. They’re training us to use new tools in new ways and to buy more of what they make.