For some months now I have had a friendly sparring session going on with my friend Brad. Last October, Brad posted to his blog a piece on iPad and Bumptop that I took issue with. My issue – to be clear – was less with the eventual outcome than with the timeframe. As followers of this blog know, I take a Now Not New outlook on technology and believe that despite the hyperbole and headline writing, the rate of adoption of technology is not quite as fast as advertised.
Clay Shirky wisely measures cultural revolutions (which I’m equating with the popular term ‘paradigm shift’) not by technologies but by enough people modifying their behavior because of them. I do not believe Apple’s iPad, or any tablet device for that matter, can possibly ‘change the computing experience as we know it’ in two years – which is the line Brad drew in the sand.
In a past post, I made note of the actual rate of MP3 player adoption into mainstream culture, noting that while it seemed that suddenly everyone had one, in truth the technology had taken nearly a decade to achieve the current ubiquity it enjoyed (which, incidentally is still less than half the population). Was this game changing? Absolutely. Did it happen overnight or even within two years? Not at all. Paradigms don’t shift, they drift and that presents opportunities and a mandate for calm, level-headed thinking.
Back to iPad. Brad playfully swatted my proverbial hornets nest when he Tweeted at me that at 2MM sales, he was ahead of his own schedule in terms of his prophecy.
I decided to do some digging to build my argument:
Apple has sold 2MM iPads worldwide, mostly in America. For arguments sake, let’s attribute ALL of the sales to America.
According to one source, the population of North America was approx. 340,831,831 in 2009*.
(*Its worth noting the U.S. census numbers for the U.S. are lower but that only 72% of people participated in the census in the first place.)
Working from the same first set of numbers above, 259,561,000 of this 341MM were internet users – or 76.2% of the population. That means 1 in 4 people weren’t even using the Internet yet which as an aside somewhat surprised me.
Attributing ALL iPad sales to North America, the 2,000,000 iPads sold are in the hands of approximately 0.58% of the North American population. That’s just a hair over a half of a percentage point. So yes, iPad sold faster than iPhone, and that’s a neat short term stat, but within the perspective of the internet-using population we’re talking fractions of a percentage point here.As an interesting aside (thanks to my friend Jim for pointing this out) when the government went to switch from analog to digital TV in 2009 anywhere from two million to six million U.S. homes still had rabbit ears on their set top. Ask a techie and 2MM in terms of an iPad is a paradigm changing mass. 2MM in terms of legacy rabbit ears is a fringe minority. Subjectivity is a funny thing.
Ok, for argument’s sake, let’s peg a ‘paradigm shift’ at perceptual ubiquity in the marketplace. Per this study MP3 players enjoy a 44% market penetration in 2010. They feel pretty ubiquitous right? They’ve changed entire industries after all and it seems everyone owns one so I’m going to use 44% for now (we can revise later).
Let’s assume Apple iPad sales will continue at pace moving forward, even though some people are beginning to back away from this bullish outlook. I’m feeling generous, so if Apple sold 2MM iPad units in two months let’s give them 1MM in sales per month in perpetuity. That’s fairly liberal I think as the early adopters’ enthusiasm is being assumed as ongoing and applicable to everyone.
By this figure, to be in the hands of 44% of the North American population (150MM people), thereby equating with the iPod in terms of game-changing impact for a significant proportion of the population, Apple will have to sell iPads, at 1MM units/month, for the next twelve and a half years.
Unfair to put the burden solely on Apple when Samsung, HP and Dell are all working up tablets? Okay, let’s double the sales figures per month for tablets. Even at 2MM units per month you’re still looking at 6 years to reach 44% of the population.
Driving the point back to my friend Brad’s two-year plan; to put a tablet in the hands of 44% of the population in two years, you’d need to sell 6.2MM units per month beginning on day one. That’s very aggressive in a new category wherein the market need being met is poorly articulated at this point.
To those arguing with my subjective benchmark of 44% pegged to the MP3 player, this brings us to the definition of paradigm change. First, MP3 players are more appropriate than say iPhone/smartphones because the latter has even less market penetration. Second, the free (mis)use of phrases like ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘change the computing experience as we know it’ and the running-around-with-our-heads-cut-off it creates is precisely what I am taking issue with.
To call something a paradigm shift, which is defined as a fundamental change in approach or an acceptance by a majority of a changed belief, attitude or way of doing things, it must impact the behavior of a larger population than the smart phone (currently about 10% of the marketplace) or iPad do. Not by a little… by a lot. By the definition of the word, even the MP3 player/44% example is not a valid basis.
By contrast, according to this nifty website there have been about 153,073,000 PCs sold in the world this year. That includes laptops, desktops, and notebooks but not handhelds. That’s a paradigm shift in process (that was at its early stage three decades ago). Smartphone and tablets are still at their early stage. Will they take three decades too? Probably not. But they won’t take two years either.
So why am I making such a big deal out of this?
My point here is not that the iPad isn’t a successful product by business terms. Apple continues to impact the computer industry and the iPad will effect lasting change on computing. No arguments here. Even more encouraging is the fact that you don’t need to create paradigm-shifting technology to do quite well in business. Hell, the people who reshaped rubberbands, colored them and call them Sillybandz are making a fortune on a very old technology.
The important realization – I’ll say it again – is that paradigms drift, they don’t shift. This gives us time to think and consider. This gives us the ability to make plans, create a strategy and spend wisely. This means we need to take a collective deep breath and think about things a little more.
Yet any time a new technology hits the media hypemachine, businesses (from Wall St. on up) have a collective freakout. Reason goes out the window, everyone begins truncating thought and talking in superlatives. Worse, companies begin allocating a lot of resources and money based on these knee-jerk reactions fed by poorly contextualized information. You can call this jockeying for early-mover advantage but this doesn’t always work. You can shoot from the hip in the name of ‘experimentation’ if you want, but experimentation without a process for learning is wasteful. And yes some companies do these things and still come out on top. But that’s the would-be actors in Hollywood dynamic. For every Tom Cruise there’s 10,000 waiters working for $8.75/hour. Shouldn’t we want to improve our odds a little?
So Brad my sparring partner, I do not contest that tablet computing, like the mouse, modem and microchip, will have a lasting impact on the evolution of computing. I do not, however, believe that will be experienced by the vast majority of people within the next two years. I also believe that it is this vast majority of people that most companies do business with. It might make sense to spend some time looking at how they really live, act and engage with the world.
They say fortune favors the prepared mind. Part of preparation is looking ahead. The other part is keeping your head amid the exaggeration flying around.