About a month ago, I was hanging out at a bar with some other entrepreneurs. One of them had a 3G iPad, and was using it to check his email (using the iPad Gmail app). I thought about it for a second, and realized that this was the beginning of a new wave.
Sure I can pull out my phone and check my email (or look at a web page), but it isn’t the full-featured, rich experience that I get from my laptop or iPad. Everything is constrained and dumbed down by the small screen size on a phone - the experience can never be equivalent to a PC. Despite the incredible pixel densities we are beginning to see, the eye can only perceive so much detail per square inch. I used to think that 1600x1200 on a 20” screen created unreadably small text - even after the dawn of HD phones (which will happen this year), the amount of information we can display on a 4” display will still be effectively the same.
The original iPad was only a new product in one sense - most of the hardware was at best a mild upgrade from the previous iPhone. But the real genius was the 10” IPS display - for the first time you had a 10” system that you could carry with you anywhere. That was Steve Jobs’ true vision - a touchscreen computer that was always with you.
Right now, if I want Internet on my Macbook or wifi iPad, I have to pull out my phone, enable tethering, and connect via wifi. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two, but the experience is clunky and slightly awkward. It isn’t instantaneous, which creates barrier to entry. Even though I have my laptop with me at pretty much all times, I rarely whip it out on the spur of the moment.
So the 3G iPad actually contained a second revolution - always-on Internet connectivity. For the first time, you have a truly usable device that can access all data from anywhere. As I alluded to before, always-on Internet is going to be huge.
A few years back, we started to see netbooks with integrated 3G. These were innovative, but most probably ahead of their time (just like the netbooks themselves). The experience of using a netbook sucked enough that integrated 3G couldn’t make up for it. The real revolution comes from an elegant and refined product married to always-on Internet connectivity. The Internet connectivity shouldn’t just be a checkbox - it needs to be an integral part of the product experience.
I actually don’t think that the iPad was the first truly usable device with always-on data - it actually started with Amazon. The original 3G Kindle was brilliant - for the first time you could download a book from virtually anywhere. Maybe you are sitting on the beach, and you want a new book. So you log on to the on-device store, download a book, and within two minutes you can begin reading. It’s seamless - you don’t have to think about “tethering.” I actually think Amazon did people a disservice by releasing a wifi-only Kindle (from a UX perspective), even though I understand the strategic reasons for doing so.
So what’s the next move? I think that we will soon see always-on data in more devices. As data speeds get faster, and all of the US carriers standardize on LTE, we will see high-performance laptops with nice screens and integrated 4G data. I’m looking forward to buying an 11” Macbook Air with always-on data. The only question is how battery capacities will manage to keep up - I’m guessing this is one reason why we soon see most laptops move to multi-core ARM processors.
And then there is always the Amazon tablet that is coming out next week. I don’t predict that it will have 3G (due to cost constraints), but it may be the first high-quality, affordable tablet. Assuming it is successful, we may truly be at the beginning of the post-pc revolution. I would postulate, however, that it isn’t so much about the end of PCs as the beginning of being able to access all the world’s information from virtually anywhere in the world.