The iPad and the Chevrolet
Now that the froth from the iPad launch has blown past, it’s worth stepping back a bit. For me, the most telling comments were not the ones which talked about functionality, but those which looked at what the iPad proposition told us about the state of the device and app market. Which is this: the computer technology market is now moving out of its technology-led phase.
A moment of theory might help. I’m quite influenced by the work of the economic historian Carlota Perez, who’s tracked five long phases, or surges, of technology innovation, going back to 1771. Each phase runs for 50-60 years and follows a common pattern (there’s more detail in the diagram below). There’s an ‘installation’ phase, in which the new technology platform spreads in visibility and usage (device penetration increases, underlying infrastructure is developed). There’s a bubble and a crash, in which investors get over-excited about the prospects. And then there’s a deployment phase, in which the applications associated with the technology platform deepen and broaden, and the underlying impacts on society become more profound. The ICT surge started in 1971, with the invention of the microprocessor. We’ve finished the installation phase, we’ve had the crash (dot.com, not global financial crash, though the two may be linked), and now we’re several years into the deployment phase. The iPad launch was another confirming sign of this.
So looking at the iPad launch through this lens, there are a few posts which resonate. The first is that the iPad is not unique in this space, although it would be easy to forget this. The Open Publishing Lab tracked something like 20 tablet-like computer products, in the e-reader and e-publishing space alone, being shown or launched at the big computer show CES.
The second is the post by Jim Stogdill at O’Reilly Radar, which makes an explicit comparison between the development of the computer and the earlier development of the car:
The iPad explicitly leaves the baggage behind, leaps the conceptual gulf, and becomes something else entirely. Something consumery, media’ish, and not in the least bit intimidating. The automobile went through a similar evolution. From eminently hackable to hood essentially sealed shut.
And the third is a post at the design blog Core 77, which made a cultural link between the lost glamour of Detroit (just typing that sentence in 2010 seems quite strange) and the new cult of Silicon Valley:
It is apparent that in the past ten years, with the rise of major Silicon Valley corporations, we have become a culture of individuals that identify most with technology companies and their products. As the national auto industry has declined and our view of transportation has evolved, slowly the automobile has fallen out of prominence as our national symbol of innovation and industry.
Of course, the car was at the heart of the last technology surge, based on mass production, which started in 1908 with Henry Ford’s Model T. The installation phase was about increasing car ownership and building road networks. The crash came quite early, and the deployment phase was delayed by depression and war. But the deployment phase was the period in which the suburbs evolved and supermarkets became the dominant mode of food distribution and retail.
The technology becomes invisible
So, in this analogy, we’re at the point at which the technology becomes invisible, and starts to become embedded in our lives. That’s what the discussion about the importance of cloud computing is about – the moment when we can stop worrying about whether the road or the vehicle are up to making the journey. And that’s what underpins Apple’s iPad rhetoric about simplicity and use, which is probably why many of the first technical appraisals were so negative.
But it’s worth going one stage further, and thinking about the industrial landscape of this ‘deployment’ phase. The dominant companies of the moment – in terms of momentum use, and reputation, if not yet revenues – are those which have developed since the deployment phase started: Google, YouTube, Flickr, and so on. Microsoft is, unfailingly, an ‘installation’ company, as is AOL. It is possible to reinvent yourself: Apple was a fairly unsuccessful ‘installation’ company, but with the advent of iTunes and the iPhone, has remade itself as a ‘deployment’ company, as last week’s huge buzz about the iPad demonstrated. And in the mobile space, the operators are evidently installation companies, almost certainly headed for commoditisation, along with most of the computer manufacturers.
And some of the language we saw from Microsoft last week about ‘three screens‘ was also the sort of language you hear from an installation company struggling to come to terms with the age of deployment, still thinking in terms of the hardware. Of the iPad’s reported shortcomings, the one which matters by far the most in the age of deployment, in which our lives are immersed in the new technologies, is the inability to multi-task (which even digital television allows us to do to a limited extent); my guess is that Apple will fix this early. For the rest, it’s a business bet on the circumstances in which the extra device aligns with user behaviour. In the front room, as a TV adjunct? Quite likely. As an add-on on holiday, for information and some entertainment? Possible? As a lightweight alternative to a net- or notebook? For some. Enough to make the market work? We’ll wait and see. But my money says yes.
The picture at the top is from the site ‘1959 Classic Chevrolet‘.