Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke at the Goldman Sachs Technology Conference yesterday; Macrumors has what looks like a full transcript. Do not expect hot news; there is little or nothing in the way of announcements. It is interesting though as a recap of how Apple sees its future: iPad, iPhone, iCloud, Apple TV, maybe some future huge acquisition financed by its cash pile.
This is what stands out for me:
From the first day it shipped, we thought that the tablet market would become larger than the PC market and it was just a matter of the time it took for that to occur. I feel that stronger today than I did then.
I agree. The reasons are similar to those that caused laptops to outpace desktops. Mobility and convenience trump the better computing value you get in a desktop PC. Note: we still use desktops, and both desktops and laptops will continue to sell, but in smaller quantity.
Although you can list numerous reasons why tablets are not good enough – no keyboard, small storage capacity, underpowered for cutting-edge gaming, not really expandable, favourite apps not yet available, and more – none of these is sufficient to prevent the tablet taking over in the majority of cases.
You can have a keyboard if you want; build it into the case. Storage is increasing all the time, and we have the cloud. Graphics power is increasing all the time. Most people are happy to sacrifice expandability for the simplicity and reliability of a tablet. If your favourite app is not yet available, it soon will be; or else an equivalent will appear that replaces it.
Tablet benefits? Cost, no flappy screen, light and small, designed for ease of use, reliability of an appliance versus a computer for starters.
In itself, the move from one type of computing device to another is no big deal. The reason this one is such a deep change is because of other factors. I will list three:
- The lock down
Pioneered by Apple, this is the idea that users should not have full access to the operating system on their device in almost any circumstances. The lock down is a cost and a benefit. The benefit: resilience against malware, greater reliability. The cost: loss of control, loss of freedom, handing over even more power to those who do have full access, primarily the operating system vendor. Where UEFI secure boot is enabled, it is not even possible to boot to an alternative operating system.
- The store
Hand in hand with the lock down is the store, the notion that apps can only be installed through the operating system vendor’s store. This is not a universal tablet feature. Apple’s iPad has it, Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 on ARM has it, Android devices generally let you enable “unknown sources” in order to install apps via a downloaded package, though sometimes this option is missing. Further, both Apple and Microsoft have schemes whereby corporates can install private apps. Still, the consequence of the lock down is that the ability to install apps freely is something which can be tuned either way. Since store owners take a cut of all the business, they have have a strong incentive to drive business their way.
I have never believed Apple’s line that the iTunes store is intended as a break-even project for the convenience of its hardware customers.
- The operating system
I am at risk of stating the obvious, but the fact that most tablets are iPads and most non-Apple tablets are Android is a monumental shift from the Windows-dominated world of a few years back. Can Microsoft get back in this game? I am impressed with what I have seen of Windows 8 and it would probably be my tablet of choice if it were available now. The smooth transition it offers between the old PC desktop world and the new tablet world is compelling.
That said, this cannot be taken for granted. I watched someone set up a new Android tablet recently, and was interested to see how the user was driven to sign up for a variety of services from Google and HTC (it was an HTC Flyer). Devices will be replaced, but accounts and identities are sticky. Users who switch devices may face having to move documents to a different cloud provider if they know how, re-purchase apps, figure out how to move music they have purchased, re-buy DRM content. A big ask, which is why Microsoft’s late start is so costly. At best, it will be a significant player (I think it will be) but not dominant as in the past.
Late start? Did not Bill Gates wave a slate around and predict that it would be the future of the PC back in 2001:
"So next year a lot of people in the audience, I hope, will be taking their notes with those Tablet PCs … it’s a PC that is virtually without limits and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
Right idea, wrong execution. Microsoft tried again with Origami, the ultra mobile PC, a device that was so obviously flawed that everyone knew it would fail. My belief is that Microsoft, helped by Apple’s example, has a tablet concept that works this time round, but nevertheless the history is discouraging.
One reason for the relative failure of the Tablet PC and the complete failure of Origami was price. Microsoft’s business model depends on selling software licenses, whereas Apple mostly bundles this cost into that of the hardware, and Android is free. Price of the first Windows 8 tablets is unknown, but could again prove to be a problem.
Interesting to debate; but however it shakes out, Windows-only is not coming back .
It follows that as tablet use continues to grow, both business and consumer computing are transforming into something different from what we have become used to. Considering this fact, it would be interesting to analyse affected businesses in terms of how ready they are for this change. It would be fascinating to see companies ordered by some kind of tablet readiness index, and my guess is that those towards the bottom of that hypothetical list are in for a nasty shock.