The Year When Apple's Tablet Means Good Enough Isn't

“Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them.”

--Joseph Heller

Desktop computer systems have some unique characteristics that make them susceptible to the "Good Enough" syndrome. However, the always on-the-go iPhone and all but official Apple Tablet have a different usage profile. That means good enough no longer works, and that will put Microsoft even further behind.

Consider the following chart that compares a conventional PC to a possible Apple tablet.

PC vs Tablet

What jumps out at me in this chart is that refinement, user interface, user experience, and low maintenance will be of paramount importance. A system dedicated to the user, always available on demand, must reach yet a higher level of excellence, even more so than Mac OS X, let alone Windows.

This analogue isn't exact, but it's as close as I can come. The other day, I needed to do a test with Windows 7. I fired up Parallels, and then Windows 7. Because I had done an update to Parallels (5.9.9308), my Parallels Tools were out of date. After that, the Kaspersky antivirus manager wanted some time. Finally, there were Windows 7 updates to install. It was about an hour before I could do my test.

It's important to note that some of this was because I don't use Windows 7 daily. Also, Parallels makes a fine product. So it's not a perfect analogy. But can you imagine if my test had been to make a phone call, not just test a zip file extraction?

Just like the iPhone, and because it's likely to run a variant of the iPhone OS, the Apple tablet has to meet certain availability requirements. That means that there may be a change to the way updates are applied.

With only about 90 iPhone apps on my 3GS, I am constantly doing updates. No sooner than I get through a set of 10 or 12 in the App Store app, a few days later, it starts all over again. A tablet, with much greater storage, will have to have a more automatic way of doing these updates.

Getting Serious About Usability and Joy

The real point I want to get to, however, is based on all the questions we've been asking about regarding the usability of the tablet. For example, the keyboard and display will, presumably (but not assuredly) be in the same plane. With a notebook's hinge, one can have the keyboard and display in different planes. That accounts for human ergonomics. How Apple solves this will be interesting to watch, but it will be an elegant solution.

Next, a 10-inch screen is a move backwards compared to the ever increasing display sizes on the desktop. While we accept some limitations on the iPhone, that 10-inch range is the never-never land between iPhone limitations and abundant real estate with our 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pros. Making that display work for us, without a mouse, is going to require some creativity and excellence. One reason why the old UMPCs failed was because the Windows metaphor was crammed into a 7-inch display, making for a poor experience.

What I'm driving at here is that nothing short of excellence is going to be required to make the Apple tablet fun and usable. Business as usual by the competitors with any Microsoft Windows variant isn't going to cut it. So if Microsoft believes that they can work with Hewlett Packard to build a new, competitive tablet that has Windows 7 and a stylus, they are, I believe, sadly mistaken. All the user interface issues we've been fretting about need to be solved, or Mr. Jobs won't authorize the Apple tablet to ship.

The corollary of that is that Apple is dragging the mobile industry into new areas where the old mentality of "good enough" just doesn't work anymore. You know the drill. A competing executive figures that his company can't compete against Apple in all the details of execution. His company doesn't have the engineering talent or development tools required. So the typical plan is to roll out something that looks like the Apple tablet, but is, of course, slightly less expensive. He's planning to steal the low end of the market. All those customers out there who are accustomed to paying less and getting something that's "good enough" will be staggeringly disappointed. It won't just be, "Hey, I can live with a PC instead of a Mac." Instead, it'll be, "this device doesn't solve any of the problems Apple solved."

I believe that once Apple figured out that they wanted to build a tablet and how it would fit into the product line, Mr. Jobs started thinking about how excellence in implementation could put Apple far ahead of the competition -- and truly reveal a product separation that was never quite so obvious to everyone in the PC vs. Mac wars of old. Twenty five years of incestuous copying did bring a certain amount of convergence between Windows and Mac that can mask the advantages of Mac OS X for some. That's yet another reason for Apple to move to custom ARM CPUs for their mobile devices. The specialized, proprietary, low power processors from PA Semi are also part of the plan -- they allow Apple to implement in silicon functionality that Intel may not have conceded. Constraints that the Intel Atom places on the competitors won't be experienced by Apple.

The final result is that for years and years, PC users drifted along with the idea that buying something that was good enough was a satisfactory decision. The Apple tablet will reveal that, in 2010, simply good enough isn't anymore.