Stop Trying to Give Me What I Don’t Even Know I Want
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One could argue that true genius in business is more about giving consumers things they don’t even know they want than about giving them what they want or say they want. I remember the first time I saw the Apple iPod. I went online immediately and ordered one, even though in those dark ages I had to purchase third-party software to make it run with my PC. I also remember when the Sony Walkman and the CD player and disk were both introduced, and although I was slower to get those, I marveled at the genius of the people who gave us such elegant solutions to problems most of us were only dimly aware we had.

If you were of a certain mind you might take these phenomena as proof of the excesses of a capitalist system that invents and then sells people all kinds of stuff they don’t need. Not a bit of it! The needs these products fill are not at all the same as the invented needs of an earlier generation of marketing geniuses (let’s call them Mad Men). Remember feminine hygiene deodorant spray? Ring around the collar? Or, as the ad for some long-forgotten brand of air freshener went, “I remember the night when the girls came over for bridge club. I was so embarrassed because of lingering odors, the houseatosis.”

That was an earlier era. Each one of the newer generation of technology-based products filled a constellation of needs, even if some of the negative side effects took  time to become apparent. To most of us, CDs were a godsend. Portable, nearly indestructible, they took up a fraction of the space of regular albums and weighed far less, and reduced almost to nil the chance that someone having had a bit too much to drink would lurch against the turntable and scratch your precious and irreplaceable Coleman Hawkins record. But we later learned that the plastic “jewel box” in which CDs came were woefully awful compared to cardboard record sleeves, and that the sound quality of a digital CD couldn’t match that of a good vinyl record.

For me the iPod was as nearly perfect as technology gets. It did everything I wanted it to do and nothing I didn’t, and no one had even bothered to ask me. I travel over 150 days a year and I fell in love with the idea that I could bring my record collection with me wherever I went instead of having to content myself with a dozen or so CDs. Of course you can’t read the liner notes on an MP3, so you have to wonder – at least until you can get to a computer and Google it – who played piano on that particular Miles Davis recording.  Some say the sound quality on an MP3, unless you save it as as a massive file, is even worse than that of CDs, though one virtue of advancing age is that it becomes harder to hear the difference. And who could have foreseen that our teenage children, never the most communicative of souls, wouldn’t even hear us telling them to go pick up their rooms because they forever have those little white listening pods stuck in their ears? But those inconveniences emerged only later.

The most recent crop of miraculous inventions, however, has underwhelmed me. The critics do have a point when they point to the inexorable logic of capitalism that you have to keep moving forward, forever inventing, manufacturing, and selling new products. This is hard to sustain. Sony, once the greatest innovator in consumer electronics, has become an also-ran. With last month’s release of the iPad, Apple may soon suffer the same fate, even if the current sales figures tell a different story.

Though the iPod remains the gold standard of portable music devices, there are plenty of others almost as good, and the fat profit margins Steve Jobs reaped on the first generations of the product have become substantially thinner. Ditto, I suspect, with the iPhone. So along comes the iPad, and in spite of the million units Apple has sold in less time than it takes me to walk to the mailbox, it strikes me as a sad orphan of a product. It’s either a big iTouch (the non-telephone version of the iPhone) or a small computer, too big to carry in your pocket but not big enough to write a term paper or a business plan. Instead of brilliantly figuring out where we want to go before we ourselves know, Apple this time seems to have invented a new kind of deodorant spray for parts of our bodies that should never be sprayed: a solution in search of a need. Right now, some sellers on e-bay are offering various versions of the iPad at a premium to Apple’s prices, for those who absolutely must have one tomorrow, but some are already offering them at steep discounts.

In what no one could possibly think a unrelated event, shortly after the iPad was released Microsoft announced that it had scrapped development of the Courier, a tablet-like computer that promised to offer everything the iPad does not, most notably the ability to translate handwritten notes into editable text. There have to be millions of consultants, students, scholars, cops, lawyers, reporters, and engineers for whom this would be a Holy Grail of sorts.  Some industry experts have suggested that the engineering obstacles in making the Courier work were insurmountable, especially for a company like Microsoft not noted for its prowess designing, manufacturing, and marketing hardware. It could be as simple as fear of going head to head with Apple, a contest in which Microsoft has often come second. Remember the Zune, Microsoft’s answer to the iPod?

So will I buy an iPad now that my first choice will never make it to market? No. Someone once described Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel August 1914 as what War and Peace would be if it hadn’t been written by a genius. Genius Steve Jobs may be, but the iPad, however much money it makes for Apple shareholders, strikes me the same way. In this case genius failed to deliver the goods. So I am hoping that someone, almost certainly not a genius, will use a more prosaic set of tools to find out what people (okay, me) really want and give it to us.

Posted 05-11-2010 4:57 PM by Charles Krakoff


Miguel Chavez wrote re: Stop Trying to Give Me What I Don’t Even Know I Want
on 05-24-2010 11:25 AM

I couldn't agree more with this report. As of today, the iPad fever hasn't arrived formally in Mexico yet - you have to sign up on a pre-sale list at your local Apple store in order to get one when it finally arrives. And it will still take a while. Apple has announced it will release the thing in nine more countries in the following days, and that the iPad will be selling in Mexico sometime in the second half of the year.

Now, this makes you wonder if the delay is not a blessing in disguise. It has given users enough time to think things over, to really see what the product is and what can be done with it, and wonder if it really serves a need or if it's just another "look at me, I'm fashionable" gadget.

Some specialists writing for computer magazines and sites have said that the iPad is incomplete, since it lacks ways to connect and share information other than the built-in wireless; no way to read a USB memory card, for example, or to connect a printer or something as prosaic as a keyboard to it, which makes it cumbersome and not too practical to use.

Some say it might be an alternative to Amazon's successful Kindle, with the benefits of being able to display graphics in color and run embedded multimedia files within the e-book pages. Perhaps. Truth is, it hasn't been announced like that, and its (intentional) inabilitiy to run Flash files makes it incompatible with a lot of current web sites, which will have to be redesigned to fit the technical requirements of the iPad, or, most likely, will not display properly on those devices.

So, what could I, a common user, want an iPad for? Perhaps as an alternative for Amazon's Kindle, to use it to read e-books and magazines. Alas, I can already do that with my laptop computer, so, once the hype is gone and you sit down to analyze the product, you realize it, indeed, doesn't solve any real current need you might have.