Monday, April 26, 2010

We've only scratched the surface...

It all started with the launch of the iPhone. Apple didn't just deliver a 'design' cellphone. Along with the introduction of the actual device, a year after launch, Apple has created a dedicated platform to support the software apps on the handsets. This is what they also did with the iTunes store selling 99-cents-a-song music to their iPod customers years ago. Such enabling platforms serve two very large but distinct market segments. On one hand you have the music, movie, TV shows, audio and eBook content provisioners, together with the creators of software apps. On the other hand you got the end users, who consume that same content and also buy handset apps. In the meantime, the performance of these platforms is measured in billions of downloads, millions of items available at the store for sale, and almost 200 thousand 'free' and 'paid-for' iPhone apps.

Recently Apple launched and started shipping their own version of a slate computer, a.k.a. the iPad. That's kinda like an iPod with an 'a'. Sort of... Announced in January, first shipped in the US (alone) early this April (that's less than a month ago), and already claiming a million ('n change) units sold. In less than 3 weeks. Who can do better?

Right now nobody can say (other than Apple's visionaries, perhaps...) what the impact is gonna be of these new devices. Many tried to position them and compare them to Netbooks but that's a pure waste of time. Apples with oranges... Or kinda Space Shuttle with the 'Spirit of St Louis'... If there's anything to compare an iPad with, if you really insisted, is an iPhone or an iPod Touch. Almost identical from a look and feel and/or an operational usability viewpoint, other than the iPads having more than four times an iPhone's display real estate. That's a rather simplistic view though, adopted 'logically' by any shortsighted sixth-grade tech geek. But, could that be all?

Nope, it ain't. Large screen matters. Apps that are already ported from the iPhone to iPad (so-called HD or made for the iPad) have extensively made use of the new APIs and class libraries that Apple provided in an enhanced and 'refreshed' SDK. The kit contains, among other, a whole bunch of brand new lovely GUI class objects and animated pop-up windows that bring user experience to a different level altogether, unseen before, except in those up-market video game consoles. Electronic newspaper and book reading becomes all of a sudden a different ball-game. Like Jobs said, the Kindles of this world paved the way. But they haven't got a clue what would follow in their steps just behind them. The iPhone paved the way too... but even Apple's visionaries didn't imagine what its impact was to be. They probably get flabbergasted themselves as they see the hundreds of thousands app creators taking advantage of their enhanced and function rich Libraries. Suddenly this whole matter almost looks like a sample of 'Intelligent Design': Apple first created an outstanding piece of hardware that is meant to be used as a magic funnel that provides access to the entire world of human knowledge. At the outset, the device has got certain hardware properties at a level of quality and performance never previously experienced in mass markets by any 'computer' gadget. Beautiful product design, lightweight, immensely long battery life, gorgeous monitor screen, outstanding processor performance, excellent response times, fabulous wireless connectivity, smooth, seamless, robust and durable... the works! Like any hardware should really be.

However, hardware alone is only part the story. Surely far less than half the story. Hardware is just an enabler. Once you start using it, you forget about its existence and properties altogether. You only feel sorry about yourself and the hours of life you've wasted struggling to make work those miserable Wintel boxes in the nineties... The orgasmic feeling is in the software part of the equation. I honestly salute and raise my hat to those Apple software architects and engineers. Even that miserable Gray Powell. What they have put into the SDKs and ObjC is like the works of Almighty Creator of the Universe, who provisioned the laws of nature (from gravity to evolution) and made possible to enjoy the world we live in. Apple's engineers have created in similar fashion an environment for the development of apps, like the infinitely Wise Almighty created the laws of physics that are necessary for anything we know to exist, including ourselves. You might think I'm pushing this too far, but I know I'm right, at least at a level of illustration or lateral reasoning. The scope of the two works of 'creation' is different by all means, but the strategy is the same: Provide the right game rules and a few template building blocks and the rest will fall into place by the laws that rule both ecosystems.

I don't believe Jobs was ever thinking that with his tools a dude would come up with an app like Magic Piano... Or Korg's iElectribe. Or the Accordeon, programmed by few Russian software kids (we actually owe it to Corby that we enjoy so many iPhone apps nowadays... those Russian app developers are just among the best around... anyways, that's a parenthesis, as I just thought to mention that).

So far, most iPhone / iPad apps we use are made for individual users. I'm not sure we saw many yet established by larger organizations and targeted to their customers, other than eCommerce sites and news providers. Certainly, many of the corporate provisioners are larger organizations. How about ERP suppliers though? Do they realize the potential their companies might gain by using the new devices and endorsing the lifestyles that go along? We haven't seen many compelling apps in that area yet. I didn't think so.

Let me give you an example. This morning I had to participate in an exams committee at a local Business School. Student teams presented their business plans that they created around new product ideas, etc... Among those, a one-man-show 'team' presented the idea of what the student called the iMenu. What's that? Simply something like an iPad offered to restaurant customers in lieu of the traditional paper based menu cards to decide their choice of meals. First I heard of, I thought, "yeah sure... and pigs can fly...". But then, as the kid progressed in the description of the functions of his product and explained his vision of the future, it all started making sense. A lot of sense! Like,

  • Via excessive use of clever GUI, multimedia and short clips, the meals could be specified in a lot more compelling detail and be made to look inviting, intriguing, and quite interesting, seen from unusual angles like never before.
  • Ticking the client choices on the iMenu would be used to transmit wirelessly the orders and optimize kitchen operations while keeping inventories of ingredients up to date in real time.
  • iMenus can also be used to alert customers when their meals are about to be delivered, based on real time progress information arriving from the kitchen. A webcam can even transmit live footage of the chef and his/her assistants preparing those very meals... That's the ultimate definition of a services business, like we experience it in restaurants and... hospitals: clients are active participants in the production process. Greeks have known this for years. They invite restaurant customers to select their own choice of raw meat and fish from the available stock and have the cooks prepare the meals in front of their very eyes. I got a cousin who stays there to the end to make sure the chef is not throwing in a piece different than the one my cousin selected and paid for. Japanese steak houses, inspired by a 70ies business model used by the Benihana of Tokyo steakhouses, a successful restaurant chain in the US, know all about this concept too. Why not? Chef Ramsey would love the idea! Jamie Oliver already offers an outstanding iPhone app that will get your eyes wide open to the possibilities available to us all in the brand new world of smart-phones and slate computers at the service of the culinary crafts.
  • If certain meals become no more available (often the case with the day 'special') their reference would simply vanish from all iMenus, to ensure that customers don't get embarrassed by selecting something to find out minutes later that it's no more available for the rest of the day.
  • iPads could further entertain customers while waiting by providing to them access to news, entertainment apps, social games (there are many available for free already), etc... Long waiting times for meals to be served in a busy restaurant is extremely demoralizing. If you exhausted discussion subjects with your dining peers, an iPad-like device could offer infinite possibilities of interesting pastimes while waiting.
  • Wine selection could also be a compelling event in its own right. Video clips could be used to show the entire wine production process by which the nectar you're about to start sensing is produced, giving a totally new meaning to the wine experience.
  • If, in addition, the client registers a free membership to the restaurant's customer club, by inputting his/her email address in the iMenu, the restaurant could be even willing to share its own trade 'secrets' and recipes. Why not? Both sides win. The restaurant creates a bond with its customers who can then easily become 'repeat' customers and ambassadors of word of mouth (WOM) recommendations to friends and family. By leaving email connection points, the restaurant could subsequently keep informing its customers about future offers and actions. Adding value, that is!
  • Last but not least, handling of payments and credit card processing, all with the same magical device.
iPad-like devices could thus enhance everybody's culinary culture and elevate it to levels of great enjoyment. Goes without saying, the cooked meals (it's the core business, after all) need still to be well prepared, with quality ingredients, warm and well presented in proper and oven-warmed dishes, the restaurant ambience with lighting and music sufficiently compelling and conveying a homely feeling, per all the known rules of best practice in good restauration... An iPad-like device and functionality alone is not gonna cut it for the restaurant, if many of the remaining components fail. Chef Ramsey would agree with me in a heartbeat! It takes more than an iMenu to run a restaurant, right?

Let's accept it, we have only scratched the surface. We have barely started to grasp what is doable and hardly had the chance to think about all the possibilities. I'm sure our generation experiences life in the most interesting times of human history and endeavor... it's a real blessing. Do an exercise. Pick up a business, any business, and 'see' with your mind's eye inside the ecosystems surrounding it, enabled with iPads and iPhones, Android based and alike devices. Alice in wonderland, Harry Potter and Peter Pan will suddenly cease to appear like child fiction. 'Magic' becomes 'real' and the 'Matrix' or the 'Minority Report' won't seem so far and away no more...


UPDATE: Despite my deep respect for His Jobness, his recent vendetta with Adobe over Flash will eventually hurt us all. Adobe is a good company and we all need their products. El Jobso has often had his bad moments, and the recent Flash conflict is again one of them. Jobs' being impractically silly now. Really really!

We'll see. Right now, go read this article about Apple already climbing above MSFT in market cap in the S&P 500 index; a lot more fun than the Adobe related dark moment. ROFLMFAO!

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