This Time It Will Be Different(?)

Peter Bright, at Ars Technica:
So when Windows 8 is eventually released, the value proposition could [be]: you can get an iPad, which is great for Web browsing, light e-mail, watching movies, and playing Angry Birds. Or you can get a Windows 8 tablet which can do all that, but which you can also use to write your resumé, or crunch those numbers that the office sent for your big presentation tomorrow, or play Flash games on Kongregate. Done well, that's compelling. Why would you go for the lesser device?
The article is interesting, but I'm unconvinced that Bright's conclusion is correct.  As Marco Arment  pointed out awhile ago, and many have come to realize and accept, there is no "Tablet Market."  There is an "iPad Market," and every would-be competitor is trying desperately to enter that market.  The question consumers continue to ask is:  Why would I buy this instead of an iPad?

HP's TouchPad, which was widely considered the most promising new entry into the iPad Market, is now being sold at a loss.  It's costing HP (or various parties along the distribution chain) $200 for every unit they transfer to a consumer.  And there's no guarantee that people will return less of these devices at $99 each than they did when they cost $499.  Needless to say, this is neither a sustainable business model nor a cause for optimism among HP and its fellow competitors.

The tongue-in-cheek pre-bubble mantra of the dot-com era was "we lose money on every transaction, but we'll eventually make up the difference on volume."  This turned out to be a flawed strategy, and the laws of economics have not changed since then to favor its success.  HP seems to realize this, as they've already declared the end of their tablet business.

Of Bright's theory, MetaFilter's editors speculate that "This Time It Will Be Different," but that's not the language of reasonable hope.  It's more like the language of a domestic abuse victim.

The traditional "tablet" (as in, the device that typically has a laptop form-factor with a touch-sensitive swivel screen for stylus-scrawling and -scrolling) has never taken off precisely because of the failure of Microsoft and hardware manufacturers to find an interface and form-factor that people love.  And most of this failure has been an inability or unwillingness to give up certain features in exchange for other benefits.

The iPad is a fantastic device for "light e-mail" and other tasks precisely because you can (and do) use it anywhere - reclining on a couch or in bed, sitting out on the porch, waiting in line somewhere, or while stirring a pot of soup.  And the reason you use it everywhere is because you have it everywhere.  Add even half a pound and half an inch of thickness to the device, and you're not taking it out of your bag (you will be carrying it in a bag) in any of those places.  Even assuming you're lounging on the couch doing "light e-mail" with this mythical new device, and you decide you want to "crunch numbers" right now, are you still really going to want to do that in a horizontal position?  Is there any conceivable input method that you could use for "crunching numbers" while lying down in your living room?

The iPad is not the "lesser device" because it can't do all the same things a PC can do, in exactly the same way.  Sales figures indicate that its relative simplicity, narrowed feature set, and convenient form-factor actually make it better for many consumers than a PC.

The typical complaint against the iPad: that it's a consumption device, and not well-suited to content creation.  And the usual response to this is to show off the latest works that creative people produced on an iPad.  I've never believed that the iPad can't be used for content creation (or even "heavy e-mail"), I just think there's a point at which there are better devices for a given task. Learning where this point is, and how to value the trade-offs against one another, is part of learning the iPad's sweet-spot for your unique use case.

And it's the sum total of a lot of unique use cases that determine whether any given device will be commercially viable or not.

Incidentally, the reason creative people can produce anything is that they're...creative.  And wildly so. Before the iPad, they were making really interesting stuff on other devices, and without a computer of any kind, they'd be using ink on paper, paint on canvas, light on film, etc.  The iPad didn't make David Hockney a better artist any more than MS Word turned Stephen King into a better Novelist.  They're just different tools for creative output.

So, in a nutshell: I think we're still more than a major OS release away from a commercially viable alternative to the iPad.