It’s A Giant Tiny Tablet. Now What?

Language is so central to the human experience that we have abstracted it in order to carry words around with us. Some self-assigned bellwethers claim the Internet is diminishing those writing skills. Probably not. The Internet is based on writing. Tim Berners-Lee invented World Wide Web so hypertext could link us from one text-based web site to another. And now, the average twenty year old sends 60 text messages a day. They probably write far more than their counterpart a century ago. In fact, if they receive as many as they send, they are writing and reading the equivalent of this blog every day. Think about that before you assign this post to the category of tl;dr.

Good stuff. But none of that compares to hearing someone say: “It’s good to hear your voice.”

Humans have pushed aural communication to levels beyond comparison to any other animal on this planet. Steven Pinker calls it a language instinct. I believe that’s true. It’s no accident that we’ve learned to push our voices long distances. The human voice propelled radio, recorded music, and the telephone into being three of the most widely adopted technologies of the last century.

So, sure, we say that actions speak louder than words, but our actions indicate otherwise.

A lot of this has to do with the range of ideas we are able to abstract through vocalization. And if our own language doesn’t have exactly what we are looking for, we turn to others for the needed je ne sais quoi. But it’s not just about a range of words or ideas. The simple phrase “I love you” can have three different meanings depending on which word we emphasis. And we can emphasis a word but completely change the context depending on subtle inflections in phrasing, volume and intonation. So it’s entirely possible to read too much into what someone has written; what they say is entirely another matter.

Which is why you can’t just slap a big screen on a phone and walk away.

Three years ago Samsung bravely admitted what we’d all been thinking: these so-called smart phones we’ve been carrying around aren’t phones, they are hand-hand computers with telephony features. So they introduced the Note, the world’s smallest tablet, at a time when Apple had the world going crazy for tablets. It was a tablet so small that, excepting a stylus, it could nearly be operated with one hand. But they made two tiny miscalculations. Okay, three. The first was that they allowed it to be categorized as a phone. The second was not expanding its telephony features to match how the device had to be used. And finally, of course, they missed out on producing a wonderful advertisement, filled with beautiful energetic young people, showing us the marvelous new world they occupied because of this device. Cue violins.

Key among all of that was that no one wants to make a voice call holding the equivalent of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone to the side of their head. To be fair, it was 2011, not 1911, and for the most part some of us had stopped doing that. We could make voice calls using ear buds. Or we used our little device like a speakerphone. But, come on, a company brave enough and smart enough to introduce the world’s smallest tablet could also have been innovative enough to introduce the hybrid earphone. A hybrid earphone would be Bluetooth. You pair it just by placing it in your ear. You touch it to accept a call. You talk into the device’s microphone. You listen through the earbud. They could have had their own patent on it.

But Samsung seemed less interested in being futurists than in simply having a killer feature to sell.

And sell it did. If you don’t think having the world’s smallest tablet was groundbreaking, look around. It’s 2014 and now Apple has introduced it’s biggest smallest tablet. The iPhone 6 Plus.

But the original criticism still stands. Nobody wants to hold something that looks like a slice of bread to the side of their head and talk into it. So Apple changed a few things.

So, text is great. Voice is great. How great would it be to mix them? We’ve been attaching photos, even videos, to text messages for years. We’ve been able to send our loved ones snippets of voice recordings for years. And frankly, Sprint was way ahead of its time with Push To Talk–which had us using a phone like walkie-talkie over a decade ago. What was lacking was being able to put text, photos, videos and voice together into a single fluid stream of conversation. What slid neatly under the radar at Apple’s 2014 WWDC was just that. If you are running iOS 8 on newer devices you can add voice to your text stream with the push of a button. Or a swipe. I forget which.

This is nothing entirely new. Nor something that Apple arrived at independently. Ray Ozzie, formerly Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect, has been working for a while now on just such a thing. He believes that the phone call is alive and well. He thinks the only thing we don’t like about it is what he refers to as caller hegemony. Caller hegemony means that I called you; it’s my dime; and now we have to talk until I’m finished or you are brave enough to hang up on me.

We clearly don’t like caller hegemony. We’ve been breaking it’s stranglehold for years, first with voice messaging, then caller ID. Ray Ozzie wants to go a step further by creating calls that don’t have to be continuous. And, like Apple, his vision is a fluid application of voice, text, photo, locations, video, and document sharing. It’s also fluid in that any number of people can be invited to the conversation, drifting in and out of it, or catching up with it, as desired. Apple and Ray Ozzie want to reinvent telephony for the 21st century.

By introducing the world’s biggest smallest smallest tablet now instead of ahead of its time like Samsung did, Apple also benefits from modern Bluetooth headphones. These things are one of the most maligned consumer products ever made. It doesn’t help that the first ones looked like headsets that motivational speakers use. And the voice quality was pretty bad. But companies like Jawbone are changing that image. The ERA barely protrudes from your ear. It looks more like jewelry than a headset. For it’s size, it packs in a level of voice quality that is amazing. And since Apple will doubtless produce the most popular biggest smallest tablet ever, ERA works with Siri. If any company shakes off the outdated image we’ve saddled headsets with, Jawbone just might do it. The desire to not whip the world’s largest smallest tablet out of our pants might seal the deal.

But if we’re not going to interact with the newest biggest smallest tablet the same way we did with our Razor, Apple didn’t leave the means for that in the hands of others. They never have. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he began working with a laser-like focus on empowering people to use the Internet. Apple built new form factors and new human interfaces to make this possible. More importantly Apple worked to tie all of the devices we use for this into a seamless platform. So they didn’t announce the new “phones” and Apple Watch on the same day just because they’d already rented the building. If you think of companies as selling devices and marketing features it was just a coinciding announcement. What really happened was that Apple Watch deftly moves the 6 Plus interface from our hand to our wrist. That’s not a lot of distance. Except that it leaves the biggest smallest tablet in our pocket. It leaves our hands free. And it places the most modern advancements in telephony in an old familiar spot. Most importantly, it makes it even easier to engage in our most personal interactions on these devices, and embellishes that fluid exchange of voice and text that define future telephony.

Obviously there are a lot of asshats already planning on not buying Apple Watch who object to the cost. (This is not conjecture; I read tech blogs.) Fair enough. Apple says starting at $350. But we already know the one we really want will be $500. For extremely busy people that price point doesn’t matter. They have already tucked away the funds for it. And for people whose health made the iPad such a boon, this is another device that helps as much. Maybe more. Because this one will send data to their doctor. These two groups will be instant adapters. Some of the rest of us might wait. Maybe not for long though. When Apple introduced the iPod, its continual shrinkage became comedic fodder. So it’s easy to imagine a future version scaled just for voice response, text response and notifications. Apple Watch II. At a different price point.

Voice is here to stay. The phone call, though, is changing. And wide acceptance of large tiny tablets will drive how we interact with our voices.

Samsung probably shouldn’t be crying foul here. Yes, they introduced the world’s smallest tablet with telephony features. Cue applause. But it was just a feature. When you sell features you can’t expect to stay on the top of the heap. And frankly, when your entire product line is based on patent infringement, lauding yourself as an innovator seems weird. Let’s let the patent attorney’s argue that though. My point is that you can’t just build a bigger screen without considering the implications of its use. If it’s flopping around like a fish on a beach, don’t complain when people call it a fish.

Samsung, you build devices and sell them based on features. Apple builds devices and sells them to complement a platform built on a relentless vision of interactivity, connectivity, human interaction and products that push beyond function and attempt to delight their users. You are not in the same market. Every advertisement you make pointing to Apple titillates only your loyal customers. (Or at least the ones who are loyal until LG, or HTC, or Motorola introduce the next big thing.) They just remind everybody else that you build big screens and Apple builds big ideas. If you ever decide you want to do more than build hardware call me. Otherwise, um, just send a text.

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