The New Electricity

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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:


  1. Hey Mitch, I think most important statement you make here is “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.” Having travelled quite extensively over the last few years I find it incredible how useless my devices become when travelling abroad without wifi nearby. While it’s easy to say that I can just purchase a smartphone on the spot, it’s not very practical. By the time I’d customize it and set it up with all my apps and settings I’d already be on my flight back. Using cell data on the other hand is borderline criminal at $15/per MB.

  2. There are 3G and 4G tablets out there, but who wants to pay a monthly fee for what’s essentially an overgrown smartphone?

  3. Hey Mitch. I agree with you saying that connectivuty is the future, however I think this connectivity could be achieved using the smartphone as a hotspot for the tablet. I guess that the vast mayority of tablet owners have already an Internet connected device. So why to have a tablet with a different connection when you can share your smartphone data plan?

  4. A dedicated data plan for tablets is unneccessary if you have a smartphone (and which tablet user doesn’t?). Simply tether them and you’re good to go, unless you really prefer giving more of your money to Bell or Rogers for no good reason.
    In any case, built-in mobile connectivity is almost pointless when its use is prohibitively expensive. Until mobile data procing comes back down to Earth (will it ever?) there will be a huge disincentive for people to use it over wi-fi, and little reason for manufacturers to include it in their product line. Personally, shifting my entire internet usage to mobile would cost well over $200 a month, which is absurd.

  5. As long as there is no competition here in Canada there is little we can do to hold our mobile carriers to higher and cheaper standards, except not use their services… which is why for now I have no problem buying a wifi only Nexus 7 that I will hotspot connect to my phone, which already has an overpriced 3G connection.

  6. Hi Mitch
    Great insight as always, I think as digital connectivity becomes as ubiquitous as water or electricity we need to pressure governments to ensure free WiFi connectivity becomes a standard offering (at least in major CBD’s).
    London and a number of other cities are investing in this approach and this needs to be a priority as more and more business moves to a “digital in real life” environment.
    I have been investigating large format digital interfaces (touch screens/table) and Wifi is an essential component to ensure a frictionless experience for the user.
    Standard mobile connectivity will continue to struggle as the consumers appetite for rich media experiences continue to grow.
    It would be great to hear your thoughts.

  7. I’ve been vacationing in the mountains of NM and my T-Mobile smartphone has limited connectivity. However, I’ve been using the heck out of my “Wi-Fi Calling” app which has been a life saver as I try to do business in no mans land. Whether I’m at a family members house that has wifi or shopping locally (where a free wifi icon will pop up) I’ve been much more connected than I supposed I could be. So while anywhere connectivity is important (especially in a car etc) the more ubiquitous wifi becomes and the smarter phones and tablets become in finding wifi, the easier it’ll be to switch to different wifi networks and still have decent connectivity (and its free btw!) Thanks for continuing thought provoking material Mitch. I just finished “6 pixels” the book and enjoyed it – which is awesome considering its 4 years old!

  8. I’m not sure what you mean… You have a data plan with a US carrier? Or you can’t use your Canadian plan in the US?

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