What makes a Successful Tablet?

Daring Fireball has a thought provoking retrospective on the Newton regarding how the new Apple tablet will differ from its tablet predecessors. This will eventually make a classic marketing and product management case study once the dust settles and we see how successful or not the new product(s) become.

Newton Messagepad
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Newton Messagepad tablet Newton with keyboard

What are some of the lessons of the Newton and other tablets which didn’t achieve widespread success?

First it isn’t about technology although partly previous efforts have experienced issues by trying to use technologies before they worked well enough to be relied on. The critical success factor is a well defined purpose for the device and doing those things well so it has immediate value beyond the potential evolution. In fact by trying to market the device to do features that are not quite ready actually damages its reputation by encouraging people to try things that they will eventually be disappointed with. Handwriting recognition is the primary example with the Newton although it did have devotees who loved it despite its limitations.

Take the text input challenge for a tablet. For a larger screen device how do you hold it and enter text on the screen comfortably? This is where such items as prosaic as a stand and external keyboard could be “key” but how is this reconciled with portability? Clearly both the on the go and fixed location use cases need to be addressed and the solution is most likely different for each. I think that without some surprising breakthrough, text input has to be recognized as a secondary feature for a tablet. If you want to do heavy duty text input, a laptop form factor currently makes more sense. For small amounts of text input an onscreen keyboard can work especially if the tablet is not too hot to put in a person’s lap. It is useful to have a wireless keyboard and stand for fixed use just because this functionality can be provided for little incremental cost or added complexity for that part of the market that doesn’t want to purchase the optimized device for each type of use. If voice recognition performance is reliable enough perhaps it can be another alternative added to the mix to address special case (quiet environment) text input.

Where the tablet can shine as a primary use is as a graphic interface, mobile media viewer, and large screen sensor interface. Touch gestures could excel for drawing, media browsing, and gaming. Sure surfing the Internet or reading ebooks requires some (text) input but buttons, gestures, popup keyboards, and voice input could work much more elegantly in this environment. It is even easier to see the tablet being used for watching movies or playing games although for playing music the ipod touch should be just as good and more portable.

Positioning the tablet as primarily a graphical touch input device also helps promote a synergy between the products so people see the need for all four. After all the ideal for Apple is to create a set of systems that all complement each other and all add value to different aspects of people’s lives. The desktop is the fixed large screen high capacity server, the laptop is the portable fairly capable general purpose computer with built-in keyboard and touchpad, the tablet is the portable media player and creative full screen graphic input touchpad, and the iphone/ipod touch are the pocket communicator sensor computers. Not everyone will have the optimized environment of all four but the ideal is for the products to have that integration and complementary functionality synergy where it makes sense while also providing stand alone capabilities that provide enough value that they can be purchased separately.

I have left out the Apple TV or Mac Mini as a media center but that is an example of how this product spectrum extends even farther. It is not hard to imagine future products including (3D) glasses, more sensors, and projector video camera to evolve the computer into interacting with the environment even more.

Product Management vs. Product Marketing

Do a search on product management vs. product marketing and there is no shortage of articles on the subject.

Avoid a “Trap” in the Priorities of Product Management vs. Product Marketing uses the inside-ouside definitions to differentiate management and marketing then goes on to make the point that marketing should focus on only a couple of messages.

Bruce McCarthy in his user driven blog makes the case for differentiating the roles of manager and marketer and also cautions about product managers becoming too involved in sales support so that they don’t effectively provide product direction.

Of course these two disciplines should be complementary, so the dynamics of their definition and interaction are important success factors for new product introduction.

The upcoming (March 11) Zone5 event Product Branding From the Inside Out – And Back in Again promises a lively discussion on how product management (inside of the brand) and product marketing (the outside of the brand) can be successfully combined.