Tablet journalism and ‘iPad killers’
By Jack Kapica
What does it mean when journalists talk about tablets, such as Motorola’s Xoom and HP’s TouchPad, and use the words “iPad killer”?
I’ve been playing with a bunch of tablets recently — Apple’s iPad, the BlackBerry PlayBook, Samsung’s Galaxy and, more recently, Motorola’s Xoom, the HP TouchPad, and a few I’ve forgotten — and I’ve been struck by a couple of things.
First, tech journalists keep looking at all non-iPad tablets in terms of whether they are “iPad killers.” My annoyance with the “killer” metaphor has been brewing for some time, but now it just has to come out.
The way the word “killer” is generally used in tech writing is to denote a device or software that is expected to be disruptive enough to make a huge difference in the market. But it has gotten out of hand.
In the absurdly competitive tech industry, in which a company can be “killed” in a market because it fails to release its Next Big Thing on a punishing six-month upgrade schedule, the word “killer” seems appropriate. And so it has come to be a metaphor of choice, albeit one that has become so tiresomely overused that it is now meaningless as a metaphor for competitiveness. (If you think it’s overused, recall that the word is being used these days to refer both to iPad competitors as well as Anders Behring Breivik.)
The metaphor has one insidious effect: It has turned tech journalism into a binary competitive event. We expect there to be one winner and the rest losers. Tablets specifically are either iPad killers or they are not, by which we mean that unless they knock the iPad from its commanding market position, they are dead, dead, dead. Unless a tablet can dislodge Apple’s iPad commanding market lead, it is an also-ran, a failed product, and leading tech publications rush to publish lists of 10 reasons why a product, launched just a handful of weeks earlier, “failed” or 10 things an as-yet-unreleased product needs to have to be … well, an iPad killer.
You don’t have to hunt far for examples. Pump “iPad killer” into Bing and take cover. In less than a second of hunting, I found iPad Killer: When You Just Want Apple to Go Away, HP’s iPad-killer slate PC makes an appearance, Five iPad killers, and countless thousands more.
Yes, tech writers find this exhausting metaphor useful, but in such a sloppy, shorthand way that it must be having some sort of distorting effect on the market, leading us to believe that marketing a tech product is a zero-sum game, a kind of Incan death sport in which the losers also lose their lives.Professional wrestling has known this for years: The way many tech writers use the concept of “killer” is astonishingly similar to the rabid ranting of wrestling fans, who want to crown a single winner and the losers to be “killed.”
This mania exists despite all logical evidence to the contrary. Pick any industry and you’ll see that there are many competitors that somehow manage to stay alive — say, among automobiles, soaps, cosmetics, fashion and sports. Hell, even in the hottest and most competitive industry I can imagine — celebrity worship —no one is looking for a “Paris Hilton killer.”
Yes, I know “killer” is just a handy metaphor and not intended to be taken literally. And perhaps I’m making an earthquake out of a verbal tic. But the concept of a “killer” creates unpleasant derivative phenomena, such as those legions of fanboys, most notably those Apple freaks who take no prisoners in conversations. And it creates artificial standards of quality that every product “must have” to survive.
As an aside, I note that Apple fanboys have become quieter recently; I suspect that they were gob-smacked when Apple started using Intel chips a few years ago, rendering the fanboys incapable of sneering ritually at “WinTel” machines. More likely it’s because iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad have replaced computers as the apple of Apple’s eye — have they in effect “killed” Apple’s computer business? Is the iPad a MacBook killer?
All of this distorts the market and its expectations, which brings me to the second thing that struck me when playing with all those tablets.
At this moment, all of the tablets I’ve been looking at are, well, pretty much alike, or at least as much alike as four different operating systems can allow (Apple’s iOS, BlackBerry’s QNX, HP’s webOS and Google’s Android). But now tech writers have revved up their confusion machines by referring to all the Android operating systems using Google’s in-house code names for them. It was hard enough to remember which was which by version number, but even harder when writers kept referring to them as Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and, soon to come, Ice Cream Sandwich. (They go in alphabetical order. If I want to buy one, should I hold out for Zabaglione?)
In an example of what I’m talking about, eWeek’s columnist Don Reisinger published his reasons why Motorola’s Xoom suffered market disappointment a scant month after it was released. In his column, called Motorola Xoom: 10 Reasons It’s Failing and How It Can Be Rescued, Mr. Reisinger reported that an industry analyst estimated the Xoom to have sold about 100,000 units in its first month, which, when Mr. Reisinger compared these sales to the sales of Apple’s iPad, were indeed poor.
I read Mr. Reisinger’s columns a lot —I subscribe to the eWeek newsletter — and I like and trust his writing. But I fear he has inhaled too much of the toxic atmosphere of tablet journalism.Among a bunch of recommendations to fix the Xoom, he suggests that Motorola “needs to stop competing against Apple” because “to even consider Apple’s tablet a real competitor is a bit of hubris for Motorola.” This comes a few paragraphs after he himself compares first-month sales of the Xoom and the iPad.
How can he say this when just about every tablet maker would give his eye teeth to wrest market share from Apple? And how can he say this when the tech press overwhelmingly talks in terms of the “iPad killer”? I searched eWeek.com’s own website for the phrase “iPad Killer” and found 242 instances of that phrase; Mr. Reisinger himself used it 17 times.
Frankly, I like the Xoom, even though I did not test its battery life and did not think to put it through stress tests to count crashes. I’m not too crazy about some of the flourishes that Motorola added to the interface — some were confusing — but if I had forked over the $500 that the Xoom sold for in Canada, I would, as a market-watcher, fully expect to get fixes for its operating system sooner or later, or I’d be upset. I’ve had worse experiences with new cars, and they cost tens of thousands of dollars more. Hell, I have a TomTom GPS unit that I got last October and I’m still waiting for a software update that will allow me to download a voice that speaks both English and metric for use in English Canada.
A similar story involves the release, in early July, of Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad, which is running webOS, HP’s entry into the iPad-killer business. Its most interesting feature is its history — it’s a derivative of a mobile operating system developed by Palm in 2009. HP bought Palm a year later with the intent of using webOS to anchor smartphones, printers and netbook computers to capitalize on the industry craze for cloud computing. But HP never did release a computer running webOS because it had decided to make a tablet to compete with Apple instead.
As with Android before it, the industry speculated endlessly on whether webOS would be an “iOS killer,” but it was not to be. Sales have been underwhelming, and the company sent a morale-boosting memo to its troops, which was leaked to the media after HP’s TouchPad was found to be wanting in comparison to the iPad. The memo, which was obtained by PreCentral.net, tried to comfort HP’s wounded TouchPad team by reminding them that after all, even the Mac OS X operating system itself was released to mixed reviews.
Mr. Reisinger’s comment about Motorola’s hubris in comparing the Xoom to Apple’s tablet should have been amended to include everybody else. If it’s hubris for Motorola, shouldn’t it also be hubris for every other tablet maker, including HP, BlackBerry and Samsung?
Apple’s iPad Might be the elephant in the room, but the room is pretty big. And we don’t have to kill all the other elephants that want to join the party.