Watching as the feeding frenzy of new tablets speeds up at Consumer Electronics Show (CES), currently happening in Las Vegas, I wonder how the hell all those clever corporations can be so terribly, completely wrong.
Long time ago, when I was still a kid, Hi-Fi was all the rage. The late seventies saw major brands come up with some of the most brilliant turntables, tuners, amplifiers, casette and tape-decks ever invented. And I was very much, in that pre-PC world – and it was even a pre-Spectrum world – obsessed by the shiny, new, excruciatingly expensive pieces of music-recording and -playing art. As it goes, I was also obsessed with their ability to fill the audible sound-curve without any distortions.
At that time, Sony was strongly entering the European market, followed by Technics, Yamaha, Pioneer and many others. European honour was defended by Philips, Revox, Bang & Olufsen, Tandberg, to name a few. Needless to say, at that moment, Hi-Fi was very much a Western civilisation’s territory and the tradition was on their side.
Japanese entrants, many of whom later became true giants themselves, chose to awe customers with new, incredibly well-engineered products with range of features that Philips and Co had never even tried at that stage: Dolby A and B, DBX, you name it. The Japanese were also completely obsessed with their engineering advantages. Every graph, every curve had to better than the Old World’s, period.
So, I looked to buy a cassette deck one day. First I turned to Technics’ incredibly impressive machine, the RSM 250, if I remember; the range, which represents the theoretical spectrum of frequencies that humans can hear, was 20Hz to to 20KHz, as much as it is possible. Distortion was almost below instruments’ measuring ability; the numbers were stunning. Then I looked at Philips’ product (the decades of data-absorbing life have unfortunately erased the model number from my memory) and, judging by the numbers, it shouldn’t have been any competition to Technics. The range was a measly 40Hz to 12KHz; distortion three times bigger than that of Japanese pride.
At that moment, you’d think, the decision was simple. But it wasn’t. With all Technics’ technical and numerical superiority, the very same cassette sounded immeasurably better on Philips, which I ended up owning only briefly (long story). The essence was: the Japanese product sounded brilliant on paper; Philips sounded brilliant in real life. No amount of great engineering could replace panache and deep understanding of the product.
I have the exactly the same feeling as I hear headline news of so many companies launching their tablets, ostensibly to compete with Apple’s iPad. And I feel sorry for them all.
The other night I had an iPad in one hand and in the other the much lauded and technologically brilliant Samsung Galaxy Tab. There was no competition. The Galaxy Tab simply does not belong in the same galaxy as the iPad.
Because the game that Apple is winning is completely different from the game tablet-makers are ready to fight. They are loading their products with technologies from the future, packing them with features that all work on that operating system that just about every geek in the world feels completely in love with. What’s the name, again? Cyborg? Blade Runner? Ah, Android. (Disclaimer: some of my best friends are geeks.) In very much the same way as Japanese companies of the seventies, Samsung and others are approaching making a tablet as an engineering challenge. For Apple, iPad is first and foremost a piece of modern art that satisfies a real need.
What they all completely miss is the same thing that made Top Gear a global phenomenon. While each and every car show in the world before it would talk about the technology that is crammed into the newest supercar, or brilliant new sedan, Clarkson and Co realised – very much the same way as Apple’s Steve Jobs – that the beauty of the car is about how it makes you feel: when your senses scream with pleasure while opening the door, driving it into the horizon or just plain hanging the poster in your room; when you feel that it was all worth it.
In the global world of postmodern civilisation, increasingly commoditised engineering by itself will never be enough. Not even design alone will help. It is about creating the narrative, the entire lifestyle universe with a product in centre of it. And the tablet universe belongs to iPad. Yes, it doesn’t have all the gizmos of the Galaxy and other pretenders to the throne, but for any of them to displace Apple’s masterpiece, they will have to be encrusted with jewels, come with lifetime Vietnamese massage and a complimentary subscription to Julian Assange’s incoming autobiography. And that might not be easy to do.
Make no mistake, all these pretender tablets will sell, but expect them to be mostly bought with corporate money, with checks issued by accountants wanting to save a buck or two. But consumers will keep buying iPads with their own money, the same way they buy MacBooks and take iPhone contracts out in their own names.
So, sorry, all the new tablet-pretenders: iPad has already engraved its name into the beating heart of the revolution. Better luck next time. In the meantime, maybe you want to hire a few storytellers and fire a few accountants.
And if you, the reader, still happen to feel unsure, just ask yourself which tablet you’d want to have in your hands when walking into your local coffee shop. QED. DM
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