What Makes a Digital Messiah?

Expectations were high in January, when a guy called Steve stood up in San Francisco and announced a new kind of sanitary towel (according the product name). Expectations worthy of a new digital messiah; after almost two years of hype and speculation, it seems we’d be satisfied with nothing less. Just one look at the shiny-shiny tablet (cue heavenly choir) and the pundits declared we’re in the future. We’re in Star Trek. Uh-oh.

Yet less is what we got. This is not a review. The reviews talk endlessly about everything the latest i-Plonk lacks. The screen isn’t OLED, it doesn’t display e-ink; it’s heavy, the battery life isn’t so great, there’s no stylus… We wanted the next Wii controller, the next point-and-pinch multi-touch screen, the next tilty-pointy, GPS-giro-scoped, voice-enabled, low-fat, high-protein lean-mean-grilling-machine. We wanted Minority Report. Uh-oh.

What about price points? Do you get the cheap one with limited storage and limited connectivity, or the expensive one that still doesn’t have enough storage and needs a 3G plug-in to talk to the world in joined-up writing? Can you Facebook it while in the bath?

The guy called Steve is still going to sell a few million of them, if only because certain sections of the developed world are overgrown adolescents with a fetish for toys, gadgets and, yes, status symbols of how much disposable income they have. The guy called Steve dismissed the netbook as just a cheap laptop that doesn’t do much. It’s not a new category of device between PC and smart-phone, it’s just a cheap laptop. Sorry Linux fan-boys, there goes your bridgehead into the mass market. The tablet (cue heavenly choir) is the third device, Steve just told us so.

Maybe I’ve missed the point. Maybe it’s not about the device. Maybe its in the services that make up Steve’s tablet (cue heavenly choir) platform.

The VHS player brought movies to people who’d stopped going to movies. When that market peaked, the DVD player started it all over again. The Sony Walkman brought us music on the movie, now the i-Poodle does it better. The Wii is bringing computer games to people who didn’t play computer games. The guy called Steve is out to create a new market from several old ones traditionally called publishing. The i-Plonk has colour, it has connectivity. It will deliver newspapers, magazines, periodicals, novels direct to your screen. It will bring college textbooks, technical manuals, service logbooks, catalogues. It will be more usable than a netbook, more versatile than an e-book reader.

Think of all the air conditioning engineers, realtors, district nurses, roadside mechanics, law students. If Steve can evangelize the publishers, we could get our sports pages with streamed highlight clips of all the home-runs, field goals and K-O’s. For a premium price. Steve will tell you what that is, since you’ll be in his on-line store buying all your tunes, apps, papers, books. Since the i-Plonk uses Steve’s own microchips you won’t be able to jail-break it without a PhD and if you do, the next software update will re-jail you faster than Dog the Bounty Hunter. A unified platform of hardware and software and a growing mountain of recurring payments for services colourfully rendered. Oh, the humanity!

I’m going to commit heresy. The latest i-Plonk is not the digital messiah. It’s another manufactured marvel of silicon and plastic. It’s not going to set you free or save your soul, make you rich or more attractive to the opposite sex. Far from it. I know I’m poor, damned and ugly.

I think I’ll stick with Linux.

I will give the guy called Steve one piece of advice. Give the i-Plonk a nice waterproof cover. A lot of them will get dropped in the bathwater. RC