Age of the Tablet Has Begun

iPad users at Web 2.0 SummitI tend to be a skeptic about new technology, probably a consequence of 25 years of seeing cool demos of products that never worked very well in real life. I tend to be a late adopter, too. I only got on the smart phone bandwagon a year ago after Apple had already shipped 100 million of them. I was also blasé about the iPad when it was announced in January. In my only tweet on the subject, I called it a “big iPhone.”

But after spending three days at a conference in San Francisco this week watching and talking to iPad users, I’m now convinced that tablets will all but displace laptops within the next few years. In short, tablets are built for what people want to do with a portable device, while laptops are essentially scaled-down desktop PCs. We’ve carried them for 20 years because they were what we thought portable computers should be. Now we know better.

By “tablet,” I don’t mean “iPad.” Samsung just released the first Android tablet and we can expect many more to follow. We can also expect special-purpose devices like the Amazon Kindle to become more feature-rich over time. The difference between these devices and PCs is that they are designed specifically with the needs of the mobile user in mind. Laptops and the early versions of Windows tablets (the machines have been around for a decade), never were.


As I sat in the outlet-deprived seats at the Web 2.0 Summit this week, I scanned the rows of iPad owners with envy. My Toshiba laptop gets less than two hours of battery life on its stingiest setting. It takes three minutes to start and its eight-pound mass is awkward, hot and uncomfortable.

In contrast, the iPad’s battery life is conservatively rated at 10 hours. It starts in seconds and can easily be held with one hand or cradled in the nook of your arm. Apps start and switched quickly. It can be flipped vertically for book reading or horizontally for Web browsing. People say reading books and periodicals with Kindle and Nook apps on the iPad is nearly as good as reading on a Kindle or a Nook.

There has been no innovation in laptops in more than a decade. Hardware makers have mainly crammed their devices full of storage and memory to the point of excess. My laptop has 300GB of disk storage. What the heck am I going to do with that?

Tablets use fast, lightweight flash storage, which is why they start so quickly. Sure, there’s a lot less capacity, but how much do you really need for a couple of days on the road? I don’t have to carry all nine seasons of “24” in my briefcase.

The primary advantage laptops is the keyboard, and even iPad fanatics will tell you that typing on a screen is neither as fast nor as tactile as using a keyboard. However, external wireless keyboards and voice recognition will quickly resolve tablets’ shortcomings in these areas.

A decade from now, a new generation of youngsters will think it funny to hear daddy tell about how he used to skulk around airports looking for power outlets. We’ll probably think it’s pretty funny, too.

Oppenheimer & Co. forecast this week that shipments of tablets will soar grow from 15 million units this year to more than 115 million in 2014. Oppenheimer knows what I learned in San Francisco this week. The laptop has had a long a fruitful run, but it’s time for that 1980s technology to wind down. There’s a new king in town.

The Power of Goals

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

One characteristic that’s almost universally shared by innovative organizations is a commitment to goals. I’m not talking about fuzzy goals like “improve the customer experience,” but rock-hard, quantitative, measurable and achievable goals, stuff like “cut invoice processing times by 50% within 12 months.” Those are the goals that get results.

There’s a remarkable example of such goal-oriented innovation going on right now in Cambridge, Mass. There, a team led by computing visionary Nicholas Negroponte is building the $100 laptop. Their project has gotten a lot of press and a lot of skepticism. I have to admit that the first time I heard the idea 18 months ago, I thought it was crazy. Everyone knows laptops have to cost north of $500.

But the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) association, a nonprofit group led by Negroponte, is on its way to achieving that impossible goals. Although early production units are expected to cost about $135 when they ship in early 2007, the $100 price tag is within reach and certainly will be achieved within a year. It is a stunning example of the power of big, hairy audacious goals (“Beehags,” for short).

The OLPC team came up with a long list of innovations to achieve this milestone. It used open-source software (naturally, since the Windows license would put the machines over the $100 threshold out of the box) and an innovative dual-mode screen based on display technology used in portable DVD players. The screen can display color but can also be switched to black-and-white mode at three times the resolution.

The units have only 128Mbytes of memory and 500Mbytes of flash ROM. That’s not very much by business standards but, as Negroponte explains it, “Today’s laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.” In other words, the project will focus on doing a few basic things well rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

Broadband wireless networking will be built in, as will mesh networking, a technology being advanced by the MIT Media Lab that enables nearby computers to create a peer-to-peer network that inexpensively expands the power of each computer.

Finally, each unit will have a hand crank on the AC adapter that can deliver about 10 minutes of power. Designed for rural areas where power is scarce, the innovation strikes me as something that could be handy for business travelers on long plane flights with dying batteries. It’s flat-out brilliant.

The One Laptop per Child project is a shining example of the power of beehags. The group started with a simple, if seemingly impossible goal, and methodically knocked down barriers until it reached its objective. The toughest problem to solve was the display, but there the team looked to apply technology that was already on the market to a new use. Building on an established product is a form of innovation.

Give credit to Negroponte for never wavering from the mission. At any point, he could have revised the goal to a $200 laptop, but that would have been too easy. It was up to the team to innovate the last $100 out of the cost. And now that they’re nearly there, you can see $50 laptops on the horizon.

Give credit, also, to OLPC for changing the rules. If it had focused on simply stripping cost out of today’s low-end laptops, it would have invented an under-powered business machine. Instead, the group looked at the needs of the core audience – the roughly 80% of school children in the world who have never touched a computer – and designed a machine from the ground up just for them.

If the initiative succeeds – and there’s no guarantee it will – it could revolutionize the computer industry in unforeseen ways. Laptop computers were designed from the outset to duplicate the power of the desktop as closely as possible. But who says we need to compute that way? Could you be happy traveling with a machine that only did word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail and web browsing, but got eight hours of battery life and weighed about three pounds? We’ve been conditioned to believe that such portability should cost hundreds of dollars more than the price of a conventional laptop. OLPC is turning that on its head, making a lightweight portable machine the cheapest option.

The project could also be a breakthrough for open-source software. U.S. business users are hooked on Windows because that’s all they’ve known for 15 years. The OLPC project works from the assumption that users shouldn’t care about their operating system. Under those conditions, Linux works just fine.

The One Laptop per Child initiative is innovation personified and a tribute to the power of simple goals. What beehags have made a difference in your life? If you were the boss, what big goals would you assign your team to meet? Let me know in the comments ection below.