Alien Technology Required to Beat the iPad

“I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” — Calvin and Hobbes

Apple’s iPad competitors are having a tough time right now, both in the marketplace and in the courts. It’s going to require, essentially, alien technology to surpass the iPad, not merely copy.

Technology development is not just a matter of R&D, trial and error and learning curve. It’s also a function of how the current level of technology is able to implement cultural, technical norms. Here’s what I mean.

Flying Saucer

When Apple was first developing the Lisa and the Macintosh, the Xerox Star (technically the Xerox 8010 Information System) set the technology standard. And it wasn’t an accident — a lot of research at Xerox went into how people could better use a computer. The Star was the first computer to introduce the technologies we still use today: a bit-mapped display, windows, icons, a mouse and pointer. (WIMP interface.) The user interface metaphor was a crude virtual desktop, and Apple further refined that metaphor, commercially, in the Lisa and Macintosh.

The state of the art in graphics technology allowed for the desktop metaphor, something that was well conceived at the time. By that, I mean that the metaphor had a close correlation to how people really work in an office, and that metaphor was so strong that Apple actually dismissed (the available) color graphics and games at the time. The Lisa was a business tool.

The desktop metaphor was so primal, so appealing that Microsoft wanted very much to copy it. The thinking wasn’t so much “Let’s go beyond DOS” as it was “The Mac is the next Big Thing. We need our own equivalent.”

Of course Microsoft could have been original. They could have conceived of a virtual lifting crane to move documents around. They could have had documents tossed into a virtual office bonfire for destruction. But the thing is, we didn’t have cranes in our offices, and we didn’t start bonfires. We had desks and we moved things around on our desks with our hands. When we were ready to get rid of a document, we crumpled it and tossed it into a trash can. So the metaphor was so compelling that Microsoft was basically obliged to copy the Mac.

Innovation According to Tim Cook

On July 19th, Apple’s Tim Cook said the following.

We have a very simple view here, and that view is we love competition. We think it is great for us and for everyone. But we want people to invent their own stuff. We’re going to make sure that we defend our portfolio appropriately.”

It was one of those Jobsian RDF statements that sounds really spot-on, but has a hidden agenda. It’s really hard to innovate once another company nails the technology driven, state-of-the-art metaphor first.

Once again, extending the Xerox-Mac-desktop example, one could conceive of a new way of turning the page in an eBook that competes with the iPad. One could, say, blow on the page and have sensors pick that up. But that’s a difficult technology to implement with precision. Moreover, we typically turn a page in a real book by swiping. We may have to wet our finger or wear one of those rubber thimbles, but that’s the basic motion. (Another is the more complex act of carving out a single page at the top with our index finger and pulling it. But that’s imprecise and hard to simulate.)

The question here is, once Apple gets out front and implements the common, human gesture in software, trying to come up with a creative alternative is like Windows having a bonfire on the desktop. Sure, it’s different, but it’s wholly unsatisfying and risks being a marketplace failure. Remember Microsoft’s Bob? Lesson learned.

So Tim Cook’s statement is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Sure. Go ahead and innovate. Innovate yourself right into oblivion.

Alien Technology

I have fun thinking about a turning point in time in the past when the iPad would be considered extraterrestrial technology. For example, if you took an iPad back in time to 1991, 20 years ago, the astute Intel employee, having heard about the Apple Newton, would say, “I don’t how they did that, we don’t have the graphics technology to duplicate it, but I fundamentally understand what’s going on. Give me time and money.”


On the other hand, if you took the iPad back to the U.S. Department of Defense in 1951, 60 years ago, the reaction would be that this device couldn’t even hold one vacuum tube, let alone several hundred million (transistor equivalents). As a result, it would be declared extraterrestrial, and global thermonuclear war could well have broken out over the physical possession of such a device — and its secrets.

Accordingly, we have to believe that, at some point in the future, the metaphor will change again — supported by correspondingly advanced hardware. We’ll have gone from command lines to windows and mice to tablets to… whatever the next major metaphor will be. Perhaps all we’ll have to do is think about turning the book page, and it will simply turn! We’re far away from a commercial implementation of that, but it could happen some day. And when it does, the whole metaphor will shift again. But it can’t be forced. Again, it’ll take time.

Stuck In the Present

Meanwhile, the driving cultural technical norm, the hardware implementation that we have today is the one or multi-finger swipe, the two-finger pinch, the tap and hold, and so on. These are the closest analogs to how we treat physical objects just as the desktop and pointer was the analog to how we handled documents on a desktop. Again, we’re limited by the hardware technology.

It’s going to take a lot of brain power and technology to supplant these original gestures that Apple conceived of and patented. They are timely, human and state of the art. For a company to heed Mr. Cook’s advice above, to re-conceive the tablet interface, to build something radically diferent, for the sake of being different, is to consign any competitor to failure. Strong, arbitrary variations on the common metaphor of the day keep the device from being compelling, magical and more than the sum of its parts. Designers know that. That’s why the WIMP interface survived anf flourished.

As a result of all this, Apple will be fighting its competitors in the courts for the foreseeable future. There’s just no substitute for going with the technology de jour unless you have extraterrestrial technology at your disposal. That’s what it’ll take to beat Apple now. Surviving and picking up crumbs is the practical alternative.

Tim Cook must have had a good laugh with Steve Jobs after that earnings call.


Thanks to iStockphoto for the images.