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Three Things Apple Needs To Do To Make Its Tablet A Breakthrough Device

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The din of rumor and the clamor of speculation inspired by Apple’s expected announcement is about to peak. We’re all convinced this tomorrow’s “one other thing” will be some kind of magical tablet device. We all expect it will be a big deal. And in these past weeks we’ve witnessed a parade of writers, analysts, and consumers who have all published their “wish” or even “guess” (or, in some cases, “fantasy”) lists. But we have yet to see what we think really matters: an Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) “should” list that identifies the things Apple needs to do to ensure that its device is successful.

Let’s put this on the record: Apple has to create a new category here — that’s something it has not done in more than two decades. Apple’s genius is its ability to consumerize a device category through great design, software and marketing. It did it with the PC, the digital music player, and the [shudder] smartphone. The coming tablet is an oddity. It is flawed in meaningful ways: It’s a computer without a keyboard, it’s a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it’s a portable media player that can’t fit in a pocket.

As a result, Apple has to tap the 6 million people who will buy e-readers this year and/or the 7% of adults interested in buying a netbook and help them see that this new tablet is a new version of all of those things and more, where its value comes from their elegant integration into a single, awesome user experience. This is something we think Apple can do, but only if it puts the right objectives on its to-do list. We’re not rooting for Apple per se, except to the extent that Apple: 1) improves consumers’ lives, and 2) cleverly exploits market opportunities or gaps to force everyone else to elevate their game. (Note that #2 will lead to more of #1; this is a fruit of free-market economics, and we are eager to taste it.)

So into the vast cacophony of opinion that is about to get turned up past 11 (apologies to Spinal Tap), we offer the following three things we think Apple should do with its announcement tomorrow. Accompanying this recommendation is a warning: if Apple doesn’t do these things, or do them well, the long-lauded tablet form factor will remain a peculiarity.

1. Create a new device category around personal media. Today, people spend as much as five or six hours a day with media (most of it video, next with audio, then with text — younger consumers spend as much as seven hours a day on media, including social media, much of it overlapping with other media). Nowhere do they have an integrated experience that ties it all together. Of course, Apple knows it is well positioned to offer music, video, and, soon, books, magazines, newspapers and web-based opinion and commentary. However, the critical link that would make Apple’s tablet really soar is the inclusion of personal media: photos and home videos. Viewing photos is a top-five online activity, digital photography has created a whole new set of behaviors that Flickr, Picasa and others have tried to serve.

Now with the rise of Flip cameras, video is about to achieve the same prominence, but no one has a handle on it yet because it’s harder to edit, manage and share. Putting all of these personal and professional media into the device and synchronizing them intelligently across other devices with the help of the dreaded “cloud,” that’s where Apple can take it all to the next level. Importantly, personal media are by definition social media because they have to be shared to be valued. Apple needs some to do work here — social media has not been a strength. Nail this combination of professional, personal and social media, and a new device category is born.

2. Work its user-experience magic on connectivity. Among the most hotly debated questions about the tablet is what flavor of connectivity it will possess, which mobile operator(s) may play a role, and what that role may be. Today’s 3G networks simply cannot support a Kindle-like pricing model (that wraps the delivery cost into the content price) for video, nor for a concept like the rich magazine that Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) has demonstrated. To accommodate the full panoply of media offerings, Apple will need to rely on a combination of home broadband, WiFi, and cellular networks to seamlessly deliver and synchronize content using a complex model that optimizes based on cost, urgency and price.

This network dance is already visible to iPhone owners who know they can only retrieve certain content over WiFi or when physically connected to their iTunes library, but it’s a clumsy dance and Apple can — and should — do better. Here’s an idea: become a Virtual Network Operator (VNO, providing connectivity services without physically operating a network)…a smart VNO. Put a multimode radio into the tablet, negotiate wholesale rates with AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (and others in the future), and do arbitrage pricing across networks to reduce pricing using market efficiencies. Sure, the carriers don’t want this but if anyone can do it, Apple can. After all, you’ll already have all the other retail and service components in place.

3. Break open the meaning of the word “device.” All along, we’ve talked about this device as if it were a single form factor that would define a new era in media use and connectivity. But the future of selling devices is not in selling single devices; instead, it lies in selling device-based experiences, where families of devices work together to give consumers what they really want. That means the tablet must be introduced with a family of co-devices (not accessories, please don’t marginalize them by calling them that) that will make the device itself more flexible and therefore valuable. We’re talking Bluetooth keyboards, sure, but also a family of docks that position the tablet to be a bedside alarm clock, a bedroom Pandora radio player, a kitchen recipe stand, a family-room photo frame, and a home remote control. We’re talking about TVs that tablets can “publish to” wirelessly and HD cameras that can function in attached mode or work wirelessly from across the room — the same camera that will speak to your Mac, your iPhone, and anything else Apple makes.

There’s a lot more detail behind it, but this is our short “should” list for Apple. A list that, conveniently, applies to everyone who wants to take on or draft off of Apple as well. Amazon’s next generation Kindle should do the same (we’ve codenamed it “Kindle Flame” around here). We’ll be publishing a much more detailed analysis of the tablet market in the coming weeks once we have the full detail of Apple’s offering and can scour our consumer data for evidence of who wants — and can pay for — this kind of experience.

Charles Golvin and James McQuivey are analysts at Forrester Research, where they serve, and contribute to the Forrester blog for Consumer Product Strategy professionals.

This article originally appeared in Forrester Research.

16 Responses to “Three Things Apple Needs To Do To Make Its Tablet A Breakthrough Device”

  1. A couple of responses — sorry I was on the road yesterday and couldn’t get back to you earlier. First, I am always struck with how emotional people get when responding to Apple — pro or con. I’ll respect that, for reasons deep within our collective psyche, we can’t talk Apple without short cutting to knee-jerk defensive or offensive reactions. We all do this in politics (it has been measured in MRI studies) and it appears we all do this when it comes to Apple. However, our piece was written devoid of emotional content and based on decades of research on Apple and others who have succeeded or failed in similar efforts. With that in mind:

    1 – This is a new category, the iPhone and iPod were not. For those of us who track consumer devices and adoption (and have done for for the two decades in question), a new device category has to be something that has as its main purpose enabling behaviors that were not done with a device before. The iPhone was not a category innovation (though it was spectacular) because it was primarily a phone. There were 200 million people in the US with phones already and the iPhone clearly intended to supplant those phones. That makes it an innovation within category because the adoption model starts with the question: how many of these 200 million can we convert? The iPod was the first successful MP3 player, but the whole device market was built on the strength of the Walkman market — Sony was actually the category creator here. Before the Walkman, there was no device category for personal audio other than miniature radios, which did not supply enough benefits to enable a new set of audio behaviors like the Walkman and later the iPod did.
    Corollary to that point: it is indeed a new category, it is not just another tablet – it has to be – simply because the demand for all of the existing tablets is not sufficient to explain the adoption this device is likely to stimulate. If it fails to sell 5 million in 12 months after launch, it will be precisely because Apple failed to convince the market that it isn’t just another tablet, but is instead a media device. Remember, we’re talking about 5-6 hours of media consumption a day. That’s a behavior set worth targeting with a new device category. Even if many devices offered pieces of this puzzle before, the value of this new category is the integration of previously disparate experiences in a single experience.
    2 – To those who wag the finger and say we don’t have a right to tell Jobs what to do, you should know that we successfully argued that Apple would/should go in this direction back in 2008 in a piece we wrote about what Apple’s core strengths were. Today’s announcement validates our approach.
    3 – DLG, All emotion aside, this device is in fact flawed in all those ways, which is precisely why we think Apple should (and will) respond by harmonizing those comparable devices (including portable gaming devices, which we did not mention before) into a single device, thus overcoming the objections.
    4 – To the more straightforward question of why this device won’t target business productivity: while I think there’s a need there, Apple doesn’t have the assets and resources in that area to make a credible category definition for now. Instead, it will sell the new tablets into the executive suite as consumer devices, then later work to add business productivity as the CEO complains to IT that his apple tablet is not welcome on the network. It’s the iPhone strategy all over again.

  2. danbloom

    paul gillin at Newspaper Death Watch blog today blogs that
    Dan Bloom has come up with a new word for newspapers. He calls
    them “snailpapers.” [But] the longtime newspaperman insists this is a
    term of endearment, not derision. He thinks maybe if newspapers poked
    more fun at themselves instead of getting all righteously indignant
    about new media, they would generate more sympathy. More on his blog

    [Dan calls them snailpapers because they arrive at our doorsteps in
    the morning with news that is already 12 hours late. But he uses the
    term as a term of endearment, let’s be clear about that. Dan loves
    snailpapers and hopes they never disappear. While he can live with
    having to SCREEN text on screens, and actually spends half his waking
    hours online, he much prefers reading newspapers the way they were
    meant to be read, which is on paper, real paper, smelly and inky and
    foldable and clippable and tear-outable and underline-able and
    highlightable and re-read again at night-able and then wrap the fish
    with them on Saturday…. KIDDING!…..CLICHE!……. but yes, LONG
    LIVE SNAILPAPERS! It will be a sad day indeed when the human race is
    down to getting their news on pixelated computer or Kindle or iTablet
    screens! THAT is not reading,…… that is screening. YUCK!

    Newspaper Death Watch: chronicling the death, strike that, DECLINE, of
    newspapers and the rebirth of journalism (edited by this blog)


  3. John Sheppard

    Excellent article well thought out. The Star Trek tablet as a model is another example of ideas preceding products by years. What the article hints at but does not say explicitly is that it may be again a paradigm shift. All you have to do is play with the iPhone and appreciate how it’s usefulness increases with time; this tablet could be awesome in this regard.

  4. @jblockWhile a “foldable” courier-like notepad form factor would be a convenient, apple could still achieve a multiple screen-like effect using software (think frames in HTML). Turn the tablet into landscape mode and create a “spiral” binding down the center, with pages on the left and right. There have been rumblings that iPhone SDK 4.0 will support true multi app functionality (unlike today’s reality of a single app at a time), which is a requirement for the interacting application examples from the courier concept video. eg. swiping a friend from the contact app into the map app. Or maybe swiping a restaurant name in a blog rendered in your Safari app to an opentable app.

    My blog post expanding on this – Prediction: Mac Tablet will have 2 screens

  5. See … Now THIS article is a great reminder of why I come to this site! With the expanding universe of hype generating gadget entropy for this poor device, its good to see someone is being a realist! The success curve on this is herculean! It better revolutionize like the last two apple devices, because if it doesnt its a DOA crash and burn that makes the Crunchpad fiasco look like a minor setback by comparison! Apple has enjoyed wow factor in the past by sheer audacity of design and implementation. Fortunately for them no one in the marketplace was doing anything like them at the time. In this case the MANY attempts at shifting user interface away from the mouse keyboard paradigm has been unequivocally snubbed. So unless they create a whole new game the world will quickly let them know ‘been there done that, what else ya got!’

  6. I think it’s a given that the iPad/whatever will be a real media powerhouse, and probably a competitive e-reader, a la Kindle. But I agree with the first poster (‘anonymous’), without some business or education-related capabilities it’s really a glorified iTouch, even if the UI is stellar and introduces innovative ways to interact with the device (eg, over-the-top multi-touch, pressure-sensitive sides or back-panel, who knows). I, for one, would like to see some kind of hybrid iTouch/Microsoft Courier, with it’s dual displays and foldable, book-like form factor. Wouldn’t it be a kick if Apple’s tablet actually folded and could work as one display surface or two? Now that would be way cool. If you’re not familiar with the Courier concept, check out this video: If Apple chooses to focus on media and consumer use, the there probably will be room for another player, like the Courier, that addresses the business and education market.

  7. Abu Ayyoub

    I think that battery life is going to be the biggest make-or-break issue here.
    If Apple has some how managed to give the tablet a color screen AND battery life that can be comparable to Kindle/Nook etc. Then, I think it’s fair-well, good night, ya had a nice run & see ya on Ebay for Kindle & Co.

    Apple might has some sick tech in their new tablet but it means nothing if the battery needs to be recharged (changed?) every 30 minutes (knowing apple swappable batteries is not in question.)

    Another make or break that falls into the battery life category is; assuming that Apple wants to push this thing to Schools and Uni’s for textbooks it has to have good battery life, would be a total failure if you had your class failing because their islates died halfway threw class.

  8. I have no idea how an analyst who is making fun of other users wishlists can then state for the record:

    “The coming tablet is an oddity. It is flawed in meaningful ways: It’s a computer without a keyboard, it’s a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it’s a portable media player that can’t fit in a pocket.”

    I stopped reading at this point… Back in line behind the rest of the masturbation. Tomorrow you get to talk.

  9. contentnext

    This is not a new category. Apple is only doing (potentially) what they did with the iPhone and other devices:They are potentially introducing a product that fits in an existing category but that does it in a way that people will actually use.The only reason everyone is blowing this out of proportion and making silly statements like “Apple hasn’t created a new category in twenty years” is because it’s Apple and everyone gets stupid when Apple is involved. You can’t have a tablet computer creating a new category when there’s already too many existing tablet computers to count.

  10. dmitrismyslov

    @Brian C

    I think what you’re looking for already exists in the numerous tablet computers available running Windows 7. Apple doesn’t seem to be interested in this category — which so far hasn’t caught on with consumers. Their vision is for connected, mobile, media-centric, power efficient computers rather than to modify legacy computers into a new form factor. However, shortly there will be several Windows 7 tablets like the existing Archos which will have form factors similar to Apple’s slate. If the current tablets don’t suit your needs, the new ones might.

  11. John Davis

    “Apple hasn’t created a new category in twenty years,

    One wonders where the writer of the article above was for twenty years.
    Let’s see, there’s the iPhone, the Touch, iTunes, iLife and iWork are categories, there’s the all in one iMac too, the superthin Air, TIme Capsule, iPod. I could go on. These are all categories that other companies are doing their best to imitate. But as soon as they get close to catching up, they are left behind again.

    So, is Jobs a clairvoyant?

    No, he just looks – in the real world. He sees what people want and what they are looking for. He supplies it. Gates could never do this, he was so far into his own introspective world and Ballmer wouldn’t see a brick wall if it was announced with trumpets.

    Methinks the writer of this article has something of the same too.

    Just open your eyes and look. See what people want and give it to them. It’s really not difficult.

  12. Why does this thing need to be a “personal entertainment device”. Personally I’m not intested in another e-reader/MP3 player/portable video device.

    What I would like to see is a real computer with a useable touchcreen/pen-based interface.

    I can’t see myself dropping $1,000 on a big-screen iPod Touch…

  13. anonymous

    Will there be any features for using the tablet as a work computer? An office suite etc. for making presentations, documents. It would be one of the biggest markets and would entice a lot of windows buyers esp. students, digital media professionals if they could use their computers in classes, workspaces etc. to take notes, make presentations etc using multitouch/stylus capabilities.