Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
July 3, 201210:12 AM

The New Electricity

You can't click a trackpad without seeing some kind of chart that compares the growth of the Internet and mobile connectivity to traditional media channels.

As newspapers, television and radio lament plunging advertising dollars, and not a week goes by without hearing about some other publication or broadcast being folded, changed or updated with more online content, you would think that the Internet is some kind of media juggernaut destroying any other media that slips into its wake. That simply, isn't the case. It's much more complex than that. The foundation of the Internet is technology (that's obvious enough), but technology (unlike media) is in a constant state of rapid evolution and innovation. When that ethos is combined with media capabilities, you start seeing and feeling the kind of massive disruption that we see today. It's hard to imagine that the iPhone is only five years old and that three years ago, there was no iPad. By the same token, it's equally hard to imagine that companies like RIM, Kodak and Nokia are struggling to find true relevance with consumers as startups like Instagram, Pinterest and Fab capture the customer's attention.

Here come the tablets.

In the past few weeks, we've seen both Microsoft and Google come forward with their own tablets in an attempt to dethrone the iPad. In looking at a myriad of data points, it's clear that the iPad is the dominant player. Last month, eMarketer reported that the number of tablet users in the United States would increase by over ninety percent this year (more on that here: eMarketer - iPad Use to Nearly Double This Year). This represents 53.2 million iPads. This is predicated on the idea that power users will be replacing their older models, as more and more casual computer users will recognize the benefit of switching from computer to tablet. As for the iPad's place in this tablet-infested world? eMarketer says that it will represent more than three-quarters of all tablet users. In March 2012, when Apple CEO, Tim Cook, took the stage to announce the iPad 2 the biggest shock was that in the previous year, iPad 2 had outsold every single PC manufactured - beating HP, Dell, Lenovo and Acer. Now, with the latest iPad sporting retina display (offering resolution that is superior to print), blazing computational speed and mobile connectivity for LTE and 4G networks, it seems like no other tablet manufacturers would even come close.

So, how did Google and Microsoft fare with their announcements?

Unfortunately, Google and Microsoft sounded eerily similar to DEVCON 2010 when RIM (makers of BlackBerry) announced the launch of their tablet device, PlayBook. At the time, Apple's first generation iPad was in-market and the PlayBook not only felt like a "me too" product, but it lacked any additional sizzle to lure potential iPad buys away. Beyond the ability to play Flash (something Apple and non-Apple users have been critical of), the technical specifications of the PlayBook were either comparable or less-than that of the iPad. Flexing the Apple muscle ever more, the company was able to launch iPad 2 before PlayBook ever hit the retail shelves, making it seem more antiquated than it already was. The sales - and RIM's current business woes - are well documented. RIM didn't let their competitors seem cooler to consumers. Apple was head-down in product innovation while RIM seemed busy trying to figure out what (and how) their competitors were doing what they do. Microsoft's Surface is said to be coming soon as is Google's tablet, Nexus 7. While Surface more closely resembled the iPad and Nexus 7 feels more like a competitor to the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, both devices will be launched into market lacking one, critical component: mobile connectivity.

Connectivity at core.

While you can buy an iPad with wi-fi connectivity and mobile connectivity (which requires a mobile data plan), the truth is that what makes tablets so powerful and attractive to consumers is the fundamental mobility of the device and the connectivity that it offers. The true challenge for tablets will not be about which brand wins the war by selling the largest amounts of touchable glass devices. The winners will be the ones who give consumers a fast and connected experience that has a minimal amount of friction. This is where the battle must now be fought. Mobile carriers need to step up and help this evolution of computing to evolve. While these carriers may argue that they are an integral part of the tablet's growth and future, the average consumer finds data plans both expensive and confusing. Have you ever travelled out of country and required international roaming? On a recent experience, this required me to deal with voice, text messaging and mobile data separately for my one iPhone. Three unique interactions (all of them with confusing pricing and data models) to have my smartphone stay connected in another country. Ridiculous.

We should no longer compare Internet usage to that of other media channels.

The true opportunity (and our future) is in benchmarking Internet connectivity to electricity and access to clean water. Let's not allow the Internet to be solely relegated to a new media channel, but let's look at it with the same optics as other utilities. We need better ways to hold our mobile carriers to higher standards by ensuring that mobile connectivity is both cheaper and more widely available to all citizens. In looking forward to Microsoft's Surface and Google's Nexus 7, we should never get too excited about any device (no matter how cool or inexpensive it is) if it's only form of true connectivity happens when you're in and around a wi-fi signal. The future of tablets (and all technology) is mobility. It's about being connected (with stable and fast speeds) with a pricing structure that isn't prohibitive to the masses. Technology is going to be a lot more interesting when the mass majority have access to it in the same way that they have access to electricity. At that moment in time, we're going to see even more disruption and innovation.

It's something that every business should be actively looking forward to.   

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel