In Western culture we are trained to believe that being first is the best. First place, first class, first choice, etc. But, in the technology world being first can actually be detrimental. Being first to market can simply mean "ahead of your time." Since this is the first feature post of 2015, I felt it would be appropriate to write a reflective piece.
I'm typing this post on my iPad Air while sitting on the couch. I can actually do this without the Bluetooth keyboard (for a little while) since the bezels are small enough that I can use my thumbs. Sharing and multitasking is easier on iOS 8 thanks to the Extensibility features and the card interface. Yet, this piece of technology is example of refinement. It bears less and less resemblance to the first generation with every passing year. Neither iOS nor the iPad were released as "perfect" products. The first generations were criticized for lacking many features. The same can be said for the first Android devices, which - at the time of their release - were considerably behind Apple's offering.
Between 2011 and 2014 there was a lot of debate surrounding what mobile phone maker was the most innovative, and who stole ideas from who. Blog post commenters would call each other "Fandroids" or "iSheep." They would cite patent filings and find examples to illustrate who had invented a technology first. But, as I observe the technology space one thing is increasingly clear. Proper implementation is more important than being first.
if you look at the reason that the iPod exists... it’s because these really great Japanese consumer electronics companies who kind of own the portable music market, invented it and owned it, couldn’t do the appropriate software... If you look at what a Mac is, it’s OS X, right? It’s in a beautiful box, but it’s OS X. And if you look at what an iPhone will hopefully be, it’s software.
Steve Job's quote is important because he is acknowledging the fact that their innovations with the iPod, Mac, and iPhone were partially inspired by the work of others. But, they were more successful than their competitors because they had better implementation. If we walk through the proverbial graveyard of technology, we can find many examples of technology that had great potential, but also had imperfect implementation.
The Apple Newton
Apple is far from perfect. In fact, they have made a lot of missteps - even under Steve Job's leadership. We often point to Microsoft as an example of a company that's often too early or too late to the market, but Apple has also been guilty of this. The Apple Newton was it's first attempt at making a mobile device. Not quite and iPhone and not quite an iPad, the Newton is generally placed in the Personal Digital Assistant (or PDA) category. The Newton used a stylus (which is making a comeback today) and had - for the time - supposedly excellent handwriting recognition. Wired Magazine's Matt Honan summarized the Newton well.
By modern standards, it was pretty basic. It could take notes, store contacts, and manage calendars. You could use it to send a fax. It had a stylus, and could even translate handwriting into text. Well, sort of. At the time, this was highly ambitious. Handheld computers were still largely the stuff of science fiction.
But, the early handheld's handwriting recognition - which was supposed to be its killer feature - was riddled with problems, and it is one of the reasons it failed. The Newton became the butt of many jokes and it was finally eliminated from the product line upon Job's return to the company.
The first tablets running Windows
Following the success of the Palm Pilot, the idea of mobile touch-based devices began to catch on. While the iPad generally gets credit for revolutionizing this space, Microsoft was a pioneer. By 2002 Windows XP based tablets were hitting the market, but the majority were terrible. These early devices were often underpowered, had clunky hardware, and short battery life. They were also expensive. Some models, such as the Asus E-Slate, were as high as $1000, while others hovered around the $500-$600 range.
Nokia and Symbian
Before Nokia became the Windows Phone manufacturer, it made Symbian. Jo Best, writing in ZDNet describes Symbian.
Today, Android has around three-quarters of the smartphone market, but many of the characteristics that helped make it successful were used by Symbian years before.
Symbian was used by many mobile phone makers, and Nokia pioneered the “variety” business strategy that Google would eventually emulate with Android. The Finish company saw the value of large screen devices early on, and it jumped on the mobile web browser bandwagon early by releasing a webkit browser. The Symbian OS was slowly acquired by Nokia, and made into the Symbian Foundation. Unfortunately, they acquired Symbian in 2009, and devices started shipping in 2010. By this time Apple and Google were already ahead in many areas.
Symbian also had an app development ecosystem - called Symbian Signed - which allowed developers to get their apps into the store faster. By 2007, there were 10,000 Symbian apps. Unfortunately, it took Symbian 7 years to reach that number, while the iPhone had 100,000 apps after the first year. Apple made it easier for customers to buy apps because it had a store and a very coherent ecosystem - something Symbian never really managed to do.
Many involved in technology journalism have noted the huge influence Palm's webOS has had on the industry, but few describe it better than Jayanth Prathipati in his article “Why do all mobile roads lead back to the Palm Pre?".
Palm’s multitasking cards paradigm was revolutionary and different. It had a great balance of functionality and design. In comparison, iOS had great design, but lacked functionality. This was way back when iOS didn’t have notification center and had JUST gotten copy and paste along with video recording. On the other end of the spectrum, Android lacked proper design, but had a lot of great functionality. Stock Android also left a lot to be desired. Some phones didn’t have multi-touch and the all too famous “android lag” was prevalent. In comparison, WebOS’s interface was JUST right.
WebOS had a brilliant card-based multitasking interface - much like iOS 7 & 8 - which made it easy to switch between apps. It had interactive notifications. Moving between devices was easy because messages could be retrieved from various devices, and the HP Pre phone could be tethered to the HP Touchpad tablet which made it easy for users pick up where they left off, much like Apple's Handoff feature. The "Just Type" feature allowed users to search for apps and the web, and they could make quick notes or add calendar events just by typing on the keyboard. Sound similar to iOS' spotlight and Siri, as well as Android's search and Google Now features?
WebOS was literally five years ahead of its time. So why did it fail? Well, the software wasn't perfect, and it suffered from bugs - particularly the HP Touchpad, which is lauded as the worst tablet launch in history. Also, the hardware, while interesting, was very Blackberry-like, and it didn't have the elegance of the iPhone or high-end Android devices.
There are plenty more examples of devices that were first to market but were unable to carve out a niche. Many of these technologies are recognized for being innovative, and their inventors will continue to be remembered as pioneers in their field. But, despite all the recognition, these devices did not become mainstream. There fame was short lived. Implementation and usability have shown to be far more important than being first. This is not to say that all companies that are first to market fail. Some might argue that Apple was the first to introduce the first modern smartphone and MP3 player, since it's devices were nothing like their predecessors. However, these products were still successful because the implementation was done right.
In 2015 we will finally see the Apple watch, the Internet of Things, the connected home, the connected car, and an array of new smartphones and tablets. Internet commenters will argue about what devices are the best and what ones are the worst. But, if one really wants to predict which devices will go onto have the greatest success and impact our lives, it's more important to focus on the implementation of hardware, software, and services than what’s new.