Why Tablets are Disruptive

When Bill Gates demoed the Tablet PC in 2001, he predicted it would become the most popular form of PC within five years. But by the end of 2006, Tablet PCs still accounted for less than 2% of all laptops shipped, with about 1 million devices sold that year. Tablets seemed destined to remain stuck in niche markets.

Then came the iPad in 2010. During its first year on the market, 15 million iPads were sold. After two and a half years, over 100 million had been purchased. Worldwide shipments of tablet computers shot up from being 3% of the computer market in 2010 to 25% of the market in 2012. In Apple’s stores, iPads now outsell Macs by more than 5x, despite the product being less than three years old.

Gates’ prediction had finally come true, but something was amiss. “It’s just a big iPod Touch!” Analysts didn’t think it fit the definition of a PC. It appeared to be, at best, just a media consumption device – not a personal productivity tool. Most technology pundits believed that the iPad would fail. (Some still do.)

“Why is the iPad a disappointment? Because it doesn’t allow us to do anything we couldn’t do before. Sure, it is a neat form factor, but it comes with significant trade-offs, too.” -David Coursey, PC World, 28 January 2010

The iPad was indeed disappointing to technologists. Compared to a PC, it could hardly do anything. All of the apps were stripped down to the bare minimum features. The web browser didn’t support plugins such as Flash. You could only run one app at a time. It was hard to get data from one app to another. The on-screen keyboard felt awkward. The list went on. In sum:

“It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.’” –Bill Gates, February 2010

The surprise was that non-technologists saw things very differently. They walked into an Apple Store and found to their delight that the iPad was a computer they could actually understand. It was far simpler and easier to use than a traditional PC (tablet, laptop, or otherwise). Want to do email? Tap the email app. Photos? Tap the photos app. Press the home button at any time and you’re back to a familiar place. No need to worry about window management, battery life, files or folder hierarchies.

In other words, many of the shortcomings that remain infuriating to technologists are precisely what makes the iPad delightful to consumers. Apple’s engineers and designers did many things right, but the most important reason for the product’s widespread appeal is its radically simpler user interface.

The iPad is a classic disruptive technology. It competes on new dimensions of quality and does not appeal to the best customers of traditional PCs. Instead of processor speed, flexibility, and power, it prioritizes simplicity, size, and convenience. But as tablet computers improve, they will incorporate more and more of the features that currently require a PC. For example, new versions of the iPad have already added video chat, limited multitasking, tabbed browsing, basic Microsoft Office integration, and many other improvements. Eventually, traditional PCs will be overkill for most people, most of the time.

“PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value. But they’re going to be used by one out of X people.” –Steve Jobs, June 2010

Almost all of the companies in the Fortune 500 are already testing or deploying iPad, despite their historical risk aversion when it comes to adopting new technology. Why? Because it’s also simpler, cheaper, and more convenient for many business tasks, such as accessing and creating information at the point of need in a meeting, hospital, field site, or during a commute.

Plenty of iPad apps for doing these tasks are just as complex as their PC brethren. But the most successful apps are those that maintain the iPad’s radically simple interface standards. If it isn’t easy to get the job done on the spot, users might as well wait until they’re back at their desk computer – or give up entirely because they have other work to do.