Apple's Blank Slate

By Lyons, Daniel | Newsweek, January 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Apple's Blank Slate


Lyons, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Lyons

The tablet will be what we make of it.

Everybody's talking about the new tablet computer that Apple is expected to unveil this month. Some say it will save newspapers by giving them a new platform where they can charge for subscriptions. Some say it will destroy cable TV by letting people purchase shows a la carte over the Internet. Some say the tablet is pointless: nobody needs it, and it will be a total flop. But the truth is, no one knows how this device will end up being used--not even Apple.

Yes, Steve Jobs and his team know exactly what the tablet will look like, what chips it will use, and how much it will cost. They've probably created some slick software for it, and maybe they've struck deals with software makers and media companies to deliver content for the device.

But the cool thing about technology is that nobody ever knows how new ideas will evolve. Today's hype around the tablet is a lot like the hype around the iPhone before its 2007 introduction. Back then, just like today, everyone was trying to guess what it would look like and what it would do--and, as it turns out, nobody was even close.

The lesson we've learned since then is that even the people who created the iPhone could not have imagined what people would do with the device. Much of the fun of the iPhone involves software apps that didn't exist when it was introduced. Those apps don't come from Apple--they were written by thousands of developers who found inspiration in a new computing platform.

This kind of unpredictability is typical in Silicon Valley. A lot of tech companies start out with no idea what they're going to become, and if they do have an idea, it's usually wrong. One of the big revelations contained in Googled, Ken Auletta's new book about the search giant, is how clueless the company's cofounders were about how to make money. The Google guys started writing code in 1996, but they didn't dream up the company's money-making programs Ad-Words and AdSense until 2002 and 2003, respectively. Early on, when an investor told Sergey Brin that Google needed a business plan, Brin responded: "What's a business plan?"

No wonder the old-media types didn't recognize Google as a threat. How could they, when even the Google guys hadn't yet figured out their revenue model?

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