by Bob Lewis

A tablet-driven view of what’s wrong with American business

Apr 28, 2011
IT Leadership

The iPad's success mirrors quite a few of our failings. Why? Read on.

The iPad’s success mirrors quite a few of our failings. Why? Read on.

ManagementSpeak: None of the established commercial packages met our needs, so we had to write our own.

Translation: We don’t do things like any other company, and would rather spend money than reconsider.

This week’s anonymous contributor had to write her own translation.

The tablet marketplace exemplifies a lot that’s wrong with American business.

Start with the original Windows tablets. Great concept, lousy execution, ridiculously overpriced.

The concept itself was clearly superior to the iPad, assuming your goal is to do real work. With a Windows tablet you could use a stylus to write into the applications you use anyway. You know. Work.

Why does a stylus matter, other than as a matter of personal preference?

Because the subject is tablets. Smartphones are small enough that you can hold them and thumb-type without difficulty. Laptops are designed to rest on a surface to allow typing.

Tablets? They should be useful while held, as well as when they rest on a surface. That means one hand has to hold it. That means either one-handed typing, or writing on the screen.

That’s why the original Windows tablets were conceptually superior to the iPad for doing real work. Too bad they were done so badly.


It’s an exemplar for a commonplace situation in American business: Thinking a great concept should support high prices and healthy margins without anyone having to sweat the details.

It’s also a second exemplar. Reportedly, one reason these machines were so poorly executed was internal infighting at Microsoft — competing organizational silos unable to effectively collaborate. Huh. Internal infighting hurting a company’s competitiveness. Have we seen this movie before?

Exemplar #3: The iPad itself. Sure it’s cool. But cool doesn’t pay the bills.

The iPad is designed for information consumers, not for doing actual work. The tell-tales are everywhere. Here’s one: Try to find a decent stylus. You can’t!

Why does this matter? For information consumers and Gamers  it doesn’t. For business people? We’ve already covered handheld use. How about something even more basic: Taking notes in a meeting.

Without a stylus, your choices are to either tap on a keyboard or finger-paint in a business setting.

The problem with tapping on a keyboard isn’t that it doesn’t work, although it doesn’t if you’re using the on-screen version and are accustomed to doing something I like to call “typing.” It’s that it’s rude, because when people in a meeting type, they’re interacting with their machines, not with each other. That’s just how it is, no matter how good a typist you are. But the alternative is even worse: Writing with your fingertip.

It’s finger-painting and it looks stupid. That’s all there is to it.

It’s also worth mentioning that Apple didn’t seem to think it would be useful to build handwriting recognition into the iPad as a shared service.

Don’t get me wrong. The iPad is a beautifully designed gadget, designed to sell to Americans as we are. My concern: We’re more interested in being entertained than in being more effective.

The iPad caters to us.

Which brings up exemplar #4: Timidity.

Imagine you’re Someone Important at Motorola. You did well creating Smartphones that are iPhone-like but could be sold by Verizon.

So well you convince yourself you did something interesting.

So now Apple releases the iPad and it sells like gangbusters (better, because really, do you know anyone who ever bought a gangbuster?)

You tell your design team to … what?

(Mental image of Bob’s hand in the air, trying to get the teacher’s attention. “I know! I know! Pleaaaase call on me!”)

You say, “Design something that’s a year late to market, almost as good, just as expensive, and with no competitive differentiators.”

“Whatever you do, avoid anything that’s original or different. Our motto here: ‘Play it safe. Even if we know the result won’t attract any … whatchamacallit … customers.’ That isn’t what matters here. What matters is covering our political posteriors.”

How else to explain the Xoom? It’s politics over design combined with corporate timidity. Everyone involved must be very proud.

Meanwhile. back in Redmond, a crack design team developed a truly innovative alternative — the Courier. Judging from the demo videos it would have made the iPad seem downright dowdy, and would have been well-suited to supporting real work.

So of course Microsoft killed it, no reason given. The guess from here: Microsoft didn’t have a platform to run it on. Windows takes too long to boot. The old Windows mobile OS was a joke. The new one isn’t even ready to run a smartphone yet.

Android would probably have done the job, but there’s just no way that would ever happen.

Which is exemplar #5: The Not Invented Here Syndrome, alive and well and not for sale at a Microsoft Store near you.

Bob Lewis is author of Outsourcing Debunked and eight other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.