“It’s a cool-looking device… but what does it do?”

One of my internet tablet-toting buddies posted an editorial on why Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs) have not yet taken off.  His points have been made before, here and there, but he ties the ends up nicely and I will not argue with the reasoning.  I do, however, want to take it a bit further and offer my own perspective.

My inner geek cannot understand why devices like Nokia internet tablets (one of the better prospects in this area) have not been more popular.  These little babies do it all.  What is not available out of the box is eagerly supplied by a dedicated-if-loose collection of coders who regularly buzz around maemo.org.  Thanks to this creative bunch the feature set of the tablets has been significantly expanded, including such niceties as LAN support and even alternative web browsers.  The potential of the tablets is their selling point.

But the everyday user side of me disputes that conclusion.  The average consumer doesn’t buy anything for its potential– they purchase something for what it can immediately do once the power is applied.  This is where the broad applicability of internet tablets and related devices has been, ironically, their marketing downfall.

As anyone close to my age can readily recall, personal computers took a couple of decades to attain their current ubiquitous status.  Early PCs were touted as spreadsheet workhorses and recipé managers but at the time the typical consumer had no real need or interest.  In order for an electronic recipé dispenser to be useful, for example, it needed to be cheap and ready on demand.  PCs were originally neither, and it made no sense to park one of the beasts on the kitchen cabinet anyway.  And when the usual uses were questioned, frustrated PC salesmen would respond that the miracle machines could, well, “do just about anything”.

Note: consumers are allergic to nebulous use cases.

Over time truly compelling applications were developed, the main one being the mother of all applications, the World Wide Web.  Open online communities, virtual auctions and file sharing were quickly added to that previous short list of uses.  The Web sprang upon us faster and stronger than any previous advent in history, transforming modern culture in amazingly short time.

In 1985, professionals were fortunate to gain access to a PC at work.  By 2005 practically everyone (at least here in the US) had one of their own.

In short, it was specific applicability that sold people on these machines– once retail cost had reached an acceptably low threshold.  People would pay $500 USD or so for a recipé manager because it also ran the 2 or 3 other specific applications (whatever those are, and they are legion) that were near and dear to their hearts.

MID/tablet manufacturers seem to have forgotten that important lesson.  They present these awkwardly-sized devices as the latest miracle machines, Swiss army knives of the modern computing world.  That does not set well with people who wonder what they will do with something larger than a smart phone but smaller than a netbook.  They need those specific use cases.

The solution is absurdly simple in statement: improve the out-of-box experience.  Focus on a handful of key uses and make sure those are immediately available and apparent to new users.  Activities that are either advantageous on this form factor or highly impractical on others.

For this to work, key technologies must also be supported, such as follows (this list is not necessarily all-inclusive):

  • Bluetooth
  • USB connectivity
  • WiFi
  • Touchscreen supporting full web page viewing
  • GPS
  • Common Web technologies (i.e., Flash, javascript, et al)

Some would challenge that short list by insisting a cellular radio be included but I argue that adding one takes these devices out of a pure MID/tablet mode and into a hybrid classification.

The features above are crucial for the out-of-the-box uses I assert are necessary, as follows:

  • Electronic picture frame
  • Automotive GPS
  • Instant messenger
  • Voice over IP
  • Gaming device (emulators would be major selling points)
  • Universal remote control
  • Decent audio/video playback (added to list thanks to Rahul)

Prepackage a MID/tablet with the toys and tools listed, make sure they’re easily accessed, keep the cost below $300 USD, advertise/evangelicize effectively, and you will see a significant ramp-up in consumer adoption.  Guaranteed.  People are buying these devices, typically separately, anyway.  They’re looking for a reason to pay attention to this malingering market and fulfilling that set of bullets does the trick.

Now, I realize that making a wishlist and implementing its goals are often worlds apart, but any manufacturer interested in this space is missing opportunities if they are not using it as a guideline.  Some would argue that Nokia in particular kept their internet tablets from success due to treating the product line as an expendable experiment– and they would be correct.  However, the fact remains that development on the product line continues and Nokia (and others) would do well to heed the collective voice of the consumer… who have made very clear that they want to know what the devices do, not what they CAN do.  😉


23 responses to ““It’s a cool-looking device… but what does it do?”

  1. Thanks for the clarity. Not so much as for the internet tablet, but about any technology. You nailed my own downfall without even knowing about it.

    • Sure thing.

      It’s a chicken-and-egg thing really: consumers WILL accept the “Swiss army knife” computing experience, but only as secondary. Primarily, they have to have a few compelling uses for which they can find an immediate need or want. Once that is established, and the purchase made, they will eventually easily fall into the “trap” of using a multifaceted device for other purposes. MIDs/tablets should and could be no exception.

  2. You are very correct. I enjoyed using a N800 for the joy of hacking a linux based handheld device but was ultimately a little frustrated.

    Also, to your list I will add audio and video playback. Nokia tablets came with a horrible audio player by default and the video playback was capped to lower resolutions due to video chip issues. While some other media players like Canola, Kagu are available, they still do not solve the issue of limited battery life for audio playback. Syncing with a desktop computer to keep the media library up to date has also been an issue. So while “plays mp3 and video” was theoretically present on the tablets, the reality and the implementation left a lot to be desired for a serious audio/video consumer.

    Personally, audio and video playback is one of the first things on my list but I guess YMMV.

  3. I insist: they need a conection that takes them out of the “just in doors experience”.

    They need a 3G conection and I don’t think that transforms them automatically in a hybrid, that just turns them into a MID with 3G, think for example the laptops (specially netbooks) that comes with 3G connection incorporated, that doesn’t turn them into cellphones or hybrids, just a laptop with a 3G connection.

    • Once you add that cellular layer, the game changes, especially in the US.

      And the Nokia tablets, at least, are not limited to an indoors experience. The Bluetooth connectivity sees to that. 😉

  4. Thanks for this concise and insightful view of the MID situation. It has crystallized my own thinking about these devices. I would add to your list of essential “out of the box uses” the need for a PIM which is easily synchronized with address, calendar and document information on the owner’s desktop machine.

    • I hear, you, Phil, and PIM is one of my biggest demands too. I’m just not sure if I want to add it to my core feature list… reason being that I’d prefer a full-featured web-based PIM over something resident on a machine. I’d love to get out of the sync-across-all-devices ecosystem and into a world where all of my devices attach to a single PIM accessible from anywhere by any means…

  5. The fail of the internet tablets was due to several factors, IMO, the first being the Nseries moniker that the N800 was given, and kept for future devices (N810, N810 WiMAX). For readers who don’t know, Nseries is Nokia’s multimedia-focused product line, and the NITs simply aren’t multimedia focused, at least not out of the box.

    1. The music player doesn’t sync with anything, as it doesn’t (last I checked) support Media Transfer mode.

    2. Even if it did sync, it doesn’t support star ratings, and possibly doesn’t record playcounts. Both are music player fails.

    3. The browser doesn’t sync with anything – hence, I can’t easily bookmark something on my computer, and then pull it up on the tablet. Sure, I can (and do) use Xmarks, but that’s not a really smooth option. I actually ended up setting up a Gtalk account specifically for the tablet and them IMing myself links when necessary. Hardly ideal.

    4. The camera could only be used with Gtalk, only to other tablets (though there was, for a brief period, a tablet-to-pc app for gtalk, but it was discontinued) or on Gizmo project. It also took horrific photos.

    5. No A2DP

    6. Most videos had to be converted to be able to watch them. (I think this has mostly been fixed, though only via a 3rd party app)

    7. The built-in IM app only connected to like, 2 protocols. You had to enter blue pill mode to install the full set of MSN, etc.

    The list goes on and on. Worse yet, while the Maemo community is quite active, and there are TONS of really talented developers in there, almost none of them have a consumer focus. As such, apps were usually ugly, with terrible UIs, but great functionality.

    • As usual you bring up good points about Nokia’s tablets, Ricky. I was intentionally meaning to keep that level of detail out of the article but it’s always welcome in comments. 😉

      I’m eager to see what the next version of Maemo (and next device) bring…

  6. In most of your points, I agree, but perhaps with a different slant to potential consumer. The real market is for traveling business use. BTW, I am a big Nokia fan, which is why I bought it.

    My goals when I purchased a 770 (years ago) were:

    #1) Use my existing chargers – well sort of did – they were further along with smaller charge connectors than the phones we had in the US back then.

    # 2) A “PIM” that would synch with my Nokia phone database, ACT customer database, Opera contacts, or at least let me export to it. Guess what – still no decent PIM. If you don’t have a solid PIM, you don’t have a portable product. PIM is not just name and adr info, it is a contact management software. Think ACT, with notes, etc.

    #2) Reading email on the road, while accepting limited / slow reply capability. Guess what – crippled version of Opera – not enough to really help. No ability to mark important vs not. To its credit, it was IMAP.

    # 3) Web browsing – does that fine with EXCELLENT connection – unless you have a linksys router, then it would not work.

    # 4) Pics and Video – Frankly, I was surprised how well this worked. Of course, my old model will not run youtube.

    $5 ) Processor Memory (mobile phone like ram) – lots of it needed, not much actually there, even with updates.

    I would buy a new one in a minute if those were fixed, AND it could add these features:

    a) A device I can take on the road for a week and leave my laptop at home.

    b) Output to customer’s projector so I can just give a presentation from my Internet Pad”? PDF or PPT is ok, just anything – give me a video out port.

    c) Able to use USB devices, like my sprint data card so I can go on the internet when there is not cheap wifi.

    d) Handwriting recognition – solid, not the palm funny printing, real handwriting recognition.

    e) FM radio without an extra antenna

    Super nice to have:
    – HDTV broadcast receiver – not dependent on cell phone system. Even 480 is ok.

    • Yeah, I agree the business needs can be very different from typical consumer needs, and vary even from business to business. I have talked before about leveraging the tablet technology into auditing and inventory uses, something I practically begged Nokia executive management to consider. No response. 😦

  7. Thanks for the nice blog entry.

    I owned a n800 for quite a while, until I sold it and bought an iPod touch. When I first heard about the 770 I was immediately interested. I do travel a lot and being able to check mail, surf the web, listening to music and watching movies on the go sounded fantastic. I did not need a device to work on for week while my laptop stays at home. A rather stupid idea, it seems to me. And, although being technical interested the device doesn’t necessarily have to be hackable or open. Instead it should be stable.

    However, in all of these four main usage scenarios I found the experience on my n800 rather disappointing. Especially in comparison with the iPod touch. While surfing the web was ok, the mail, music and video app (and all their free alternatives) were horrible in day to day use.

    In addition the form factor of the iPod is much better. Ever tried to put your n800/810 in your pocket? It nicely syncs calendar and address book. Everything is finger-friendly, no stupid pen. And I never understood why they did not include a gsm/umts chipset in the n800. They could have had an iPhone device 2 years before the iPhone.

    Personally I think the Nokia NITs are almost dead. We have seen almost two years without a new model. New incompatible chipsets and OS with every release? If I’m not totally wrong a lot needs to happen before the NITs become competitive again.

  8. Great points. This premise is what has made Apple successful with the iPod and iPhone . . . out-of-the-box ease with functionality that addresses specific lifestyle needs, though I traded my iPod Touch for the n810. On the Touch, I found myself with a slew of apps I thought were cool and what I needed, only to use them a few times. I also wanted something with a larger form factor. One of the main iPhone platform failures, is the inability to run multiple apps at a time.

    The one point that I disagree with you on is the price point. I think many people would pay $500 for a net tablet that was designed with considering usability and focused on lifestyle, i.e. Web, social media, personal media, and information organization.

    • I’m not saying they wouldn’t– merely echoing what appears to the the sweet spot for many who have discussed this subject. But I do think flirting with low-end laptop retail pricing *could* be risky.

      Thanks for your comments!

  9. The main reason for failure is the refusal by Nokia to add a GSM chipset. Why would you carry such a large device AND a phone?

    • I disagree. I carry both with no complaints at all. I maintain that the failure was in not providing average consumers with a compelling reason to do so.

      By the way, GSM is coming to the tablets… in some form or fashion. 😉

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  11. Justin Jones

    I started on a 2 month trip to China and Thailand with a Nokia 770.. it was stolen in Malaysia and now 16 months later I’m still travelling and about to head into Russia with my Nokia N800. It’s helped keep me going and I get a lot of positive comments when people see me using MaemoMapper, MPlayer, ClawsMail, Skype/Gizmo or just browsing the web. There’s so much the competition can’t do that I really need.. like swapping out a battery, reading full-size SD cards, connecting a USB keyboard/dvd writer/memory key or using bluetooth to link to my cellphone for internet on the road.
    The only feature I really miss is a sunshine readable screen… but I see some great solutions on the way ( a Kindle/LCD combo ).

    • You’re absolutely right, Justin, and those are all compelling uses– but getting that info and usability to typical consumers in a way that appeals to them is the hurdle here. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, either– I think the whole thing was mishandled by Nokia from the start (and that’s coming from one of the guys on the N800 US launch team).

      I try to remain optimistic over tablet prospects, but that hope is running out of steam…

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