The birth of a new technology category — welcome the “Laplet” (Laptop / Tablet)

Surface Pro 3 Billboard from the balcony of room 1084 in the Westin Los Angeles airport at 5400 W Century Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045
Surface Pro 3 Billboard from the balcony of room 1084 in the Westin Los Angeles airport at 5400 W Century Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90045

It’s not very often that we get to watch the birth of a new category, so when it happens it’s worth mentioning.

It’s always interesting to watch a new term enter the language, like “SUV”, which emerged in the late ’80s from an acronym (Sport Utility Vehicle) to common usage. The cool thing about new terms is that they are often shrouded in origin mystery. People have pretty much agreed that term “Sport Utility Vehicle” was first coined in the media in 1986 to describe the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, but who coined it? Nobody knows … not even Wikipedia: Link

For me, it was the first-generation Nissan Pathfinder (WD21) that first brought the term “SUV” into my own lexicon, along with the amazing cross-continent travelogue campaign they launched in 1990 with the fantastic selling line “Built for the Human Race”: Link on YouTube

I loved the rugged look of the Pathfinder, but was a little weirded out that it didn’t have a third brake light. SUVs are classified as light trucks, which allows them to get around all kinds of automotive regulations like brake lights; gas mileage; import duties; and general safety — drivers of SUVs are 11% more likely to die in an accident than people in cars. So, I bought a Toyota Camry V6 LE instead — it was a good decision. I brought both my daughters home in that car, and only sold it when I left the country.

Back to SUVs. So, while we’re talking about SUVs, the definitive article on these beasts of the road was written by Malcolm Gladwell for The New Yorker in 2004 … read this: Link

The truth, underneath all the rationalizations, seemed to be that S.U.V. buyers thought of big, heavy vehicles as safe: they found comfort in being surrounded by so much rubber and steel.   To the engineers, of course, that didn’t make any sense, either: if consumers really wanted something that was big and heavy and comforting, they ought to buy minivans, since minivans, with their unit-body construction, do much better in accidents than S.U.V.s.   (In a thirty-five m.p.h. crash test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade—the G.M. counterpart to the Lincoln Navigator—has a sixteen-per-cent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty-per-cent chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-per-cent chance of a leg injury.   The same numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan—a vehicle engineered from the ground up, as opposed to simply being bolted onto a pickup-truck frame—are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent, and one per cent.  ) But this desire for safety wasn’t a rational calculation.   It was a feeling.   Over the past decade, a number of major automakers in America have relied on the services of a French-born cultural anthropologist, G.   Clotaire Rapaille, whose specialty is getting beyond the rational—what he calls “cortex”—impressions of consumers and tapping into their deeper, “reptilian” responses.   And what Rapaille concluded from countless, intensive sessions with car buyers was that when S.U.V. buyers thought about safety they were thinking about something that reached into their deepest unconscious.   “The No.   1 feeling is that everything surrounding you should be round and soft, and should give,” Rapaille told me.   “There should be air bags everywhere.   Then there’s this notion that you need to be up high.   That’s a contradiction, because the people who buy these S.U.V.s know at the cortex level that if you are high there is more chance of a rollover.   But at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller I’m safer.   You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and look down.   That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion.

Another great term is “ATM”, which of course is the acronym for “Automated Teller Machine”. My favorite use of this term is when people say “ATM Machine”, which of course is like saying “Automated Teller Machine Machine”. Again, the precise source of the acronym is shrouded in mystery: Link

ATMs are more benign than SUVs, so Malcolm Gladwell hasn’t written an article on them … but it’s noteworthy to see how pervasive technology with which we couldn’t live without is not always a hit out of the gate:

The idea of self-service in retail banking developed through independent and simultaneous efforts in Japan, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the US patent record, Luther George Simjian has been credited with developing a “prior art device”. Specifically his 132nd patent (US3079603) was first filed on 30 June 1960 (and granted 26 February 1963). The roll-out of this machine, called Bankograph, was delayed by a couple of years, due in part to Simjian’s Reflectone Electronics Inc. being acquired by Universal Match Corporation. An experimental Bankograph was installed in New York City in 1961 by the City Bank of New York, but removed after six months due to the lack of customer acceptance. The Bankograph was an automated envelope deposit machine (accepting coins, cash and cheques) and did not have cash dispensing features…

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Laplet

So, that brings us to the story of the Surface Pro 3, and the very interesting battle that is shaping up in what people are beginning to call the “Tablet Wars”. In the first corner we have the venerable Apple iPad — originator of the category and world-dominating standard. In the other corner we have the challenger — Windows 8, our OEM partners, and Surface which is a reference standard for excellence in PC design. Ding ding!

The two approaches are actually radically different. The iPad grew out of the iPhone — it met a need from iPhone users for bigger Web pages and larger videos and games. It also turned the iTunes store into a video store. In fact, if you bought one of the first iPads (like me), you would remember that there were very few iPad apps out of the gate … what was cool was touching the Web, watching videos at a good size, and the combination of instant on, big flash memory (my whole music collection on one device!) and long battery life that had plagued previous tablet efforts in the past. You could also synch your iPad with your iTunes library, and bring over all your iPhone apps. There is a “2X” button for those apps to make them fit the iPad screen — but then they become all bitmap-y. It was really Flipboard that showed people what an iPad app could do — that was the killer app for iPad adoption. Note that the focus on the iPad is the second screen — things you can watch, things you can read, things you can hear. It is a media consumption device. And while you can get a Bluetooth keyboard for an iPad, it doesn’t have a cursor. You can’t connect mouse to an iPad because there is no cursor in the OS — which is a serious limiter for precision activities, or simply using a spreadsheet. I think Apple is OK with that — the iPad is a viewer, not a maker. If you want to make something (I would imagine their reasoning goes), buy an iMac or MacBook.

Surface and Windows 8 came about from an entirely different direction. The Windows approach — not yet fully appreciated by analysts — is to have a single OS from 4″ to 80″. Unlike the 12″ dividing line in the Apple universe (iOS versus OSX) and Google (Android versus ChromeOS); in the Windows world there is one seamless OS and experience across *all* your devices. As we all continue to add more and more diverse devices to our lives, the advantage of this approach will become profound. Inherent in this approach, if you just have one OS across all form factors, then it follows that the OS must be able to both create and consume.

So, while the iPad is like a big smartphone, the Surface is like a small PC — “The Tablet that can replace your Laptop”. The Surface is a is a PC made into a tablet … the iPad is a smartphone made into a tablet. The origin story of the Surface is based on creation, while the origin story of the iPad is based on consumption. The media is recognizing that these are very different devices, and they are referring to Windows 8 devices like the Surface as “Laplets“.

It’s kind of a cool business story — in 10 years someone will write about this period, and it’s exciting to be part of the adventure.

As an illustration of the duality of the Surface, I had an hilarious interaction with the TSA when I was flying to NYC recently. I had my Surface Pro in my carry-on, and the gate agent very clearly said “…and leave your tablets in your carry-on”. So, I left my Surface tablet in my carry-on. On the other side of the body scanner the agent asked me “Is this your bag?”

I replied in the affirmative. He pulls out my Surface, and says “You have to take out your laptop when you put your bags through the scanner.”

Before I could answer, his fellow agent said “That’s not a laptop, it’s a tablet…”

Agent 1 said “It’s a laptop, it has a keyboard.”

Agent 2 reached over, unclicked the keyboard and said “See, it’s a tablet…”

Agent 1 turned the device around and pointed to the USB port “It’s got a USB, that’s a laptop!”

Agent 2 pointed to the screen and said “It’s a touchscreen, that’s a tablet…”

Meanwhile, I’m standing there wondering when this debate will end. Eventually they decided to put the keyboard through the scanner and the tablet portion of the Surface back in my bag, so we were all good. It’s the Reese peanut butter cup of the device world — you’ve got a tablet in my PC … you’ve got a PC in my tablet. Long live the Laplet!