/ Technology

Tech isn’t about specs, it’s about abilities

iMovie on iPad 2

There’s a new breed of gadget in town, and it makes a refreshing change from the macho ‘mine’s faster than yours’ approach. The iPad 2’s launch focussed on the cool stuff you can do with it, rather than its specs.

Ever since I can remember, gadgets have been described and sold on the basis of numbers, where higher numbers are generally better.

Just as Jeremy Clarkson and his motoring cronies babble on about engine size, brake horse power and 0-to-60 times, the gadget guru spouts details of their processor’s gigahertz, hard drive’s megabytes or their camera’s megapixels (Mp). However, all of this digital one-upmanship only matters up to a point.

Numbers don’t mean much

Having an 18Mp camera doesn’t make you a better photographer or improve your chance of capturing that elusive shot of an elk majestically appearing through an eerie early morning fog. And once you own a 1TB hard drive, you’ve probably got enough space for photos and music, for a little while at least.

What Apple has done is make us rethink our relationship with gadgets. And I’m not saying this with the admiration of an Apple fanboy, but with the impartial eye of a respectful observer.

While other manufacturers are single-mindedly focused on delivering tablets that beat the competition on paper, Apple’s playing a different game. Steve Jobs captivated a legion of excited buyers by focussing the majority of his iPad 2 launch speech on its entertainment and creative potential.

It’s not what you’ve got…

The saying ‘It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it’ has never been truer. Though you do still have to have “got it” to do it – the iPad 2, for example, isn’t exactly priced low enough to become a staple find in every home.

The thinner, faster, lighter hardware is just the beginning – it’s the software that works smoothly, intuitively and inspirationally that make the iPad 2 so compelling.

It barely matters how much Ram is on board, as long as the next generation of musicians and film-makers have the tools, in the form of GarageBand and iMovie, to be creative in a host of new ways.

Apple understands how to get people excited about its products, and that’s not simply through boasting about ever-increasing numbers or competing purely on specification. In the end, the major numerical impact of this approach will be on Apple’s sales figures and share value. How long before the rest of the big gadget brands catch on?


I agree to some extent that bigger/faster/more powerful is not always the most important aspect of a product launch, but in Apple’s case the decision to focus on “entertainment possibilities” is purely an excuse to explain away the fact that Apple is rapidly losing ground to competitors.

After the success of the first IPad, other brands came along adding what Apple hadn’t included (USB ports, SD card slots – need I mention flash support?) The IPad 2 is simply a failure by Apple to upgrade the device – OK so it is thinner and lighter but there are other more basic features that Apple should (and could) have included. If you want ultra shiny over priced kit – have an Ipad. If you want a device that has had some thought put into it instead of “We haven’t got flash, HDMI ports, SD slots, USB ports…but look its shiny!” then look elsewhere.

And the saying “It’s not what you’ve got it’s how you use it” – well I would “use it” except the IPad’s hardware capabilities stop me from doing so! Other manufacturers are driving the technology forward at a faster pace.

Oh, and I won’t be surprised if we hear the IPad 3 has all of the features mentioned above. To add insult to injury it probably won’t be long before it is announced either!

Adam says:
17 March 2011

OK, for flash, fair enough. But for SD slots, USB and HDMI ports, you can buy an add on pretty cheaply (camera connect kit, and the new HDMI cable). Now you might say, shouldn’t it be included? Well, there would inevitably be some cost and form factor trade off – and personally, I’ve never missed either on my iPad, so I might ask, why should I pay for something I’m never going to use?

Matt Mullen says:
17 March 2011

In general I’d agree; benefit should always reign over feature/function and as an industry tech companies are not especially good at differentiating between the two. This often results in devices that are undoubtedly clever, but a million miles from being consumer ready/friendly.

Apple themselves do play a dangerous game with their marketing in this regard. They shy away from specific referencing to tech specifications (as referenced here; http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/iandouglas/100006444/apple-refuses-to-play-the-numbers-game/), yet like to make claims that are at best difficult to substantiate (fastest, thinnest, easiest etc). Compelling as they seem to be to many, they offer very little of actual functional benefit to the end user.

Yes, Apple does like to talk about things that are difficult to substantiate, but worse often claiming things that simply aren’t true. Such as saying that the iPad 2 is the first ‘dual core tablet to ship in volume’. This is despite there already being a dual core tablet on the market, and the further fact that the iPad 2 had yet to even go on sale. Plus ‘in volume’ sounds incredibly pompous.

Matt Mullen says:
17 March 2011

Patrick, that’s very true. And let’s not start to wonder what the ASA might make of the claim that the iPad is ‘…magical…’ 🙂 Presumably, that magic is apparent within the ‘…sequence shortened, steps removed…’ disclaimer omni-present in Apple’s television advertising ?

What Apple has been very good at is to try and remove itself from the market genericism and raise its products beyond mere commodities, into something that transcends the traditional ‘specification wars’. It’s easy to see this as being pompous – a view I probably share if I’m honest – but by treating their limited product set as a closed-market, are able to very neatly control things like performance and user experience.

Just like with OSX, it is easy to provide a good level of quality assurance for your operating system, if you’re able to totally control the environment in which it runs (something which Microsoft and Google equally, cannot). Whilst we may hand wring over the lack of upgradability or openness, I suspect that the bulk of consumers that have an iPhone in their pocket or an iPad in their bag, care not a jot for this. They prefer to have the their lives reflected in the the halo effect that right now at least, Apple has.

Thanks Al for setting up this Conversation. I completely agree that abilities are important, but so is ease of use.

Although a lot of users have no idea about the specification of their computers and probably value the reliability of cars more than top speed, high specifications continue to be important for the time being.

The last three decades have seen amazing developments in the field of electronics, but most companies have paid little attention to ease of use. Products that are a pleasure to use are valued possessions and help build brand loyalty. Many companies have produced some products that are well designed and easy to use, but Apple has consistently focused on ease of use (hardware, software and even iTunes).

Ease of use is not as marketable as high specifications, so the answer is to get your customers to do the marketing. That seems to be happening with phones and tablet computers, where users show off what their latest gadgets can do to their friends and family. Also, when all competing devices have enough megapixels, gigahertz and terabytes, specifications will no longer be very important. In future it will be all about abilities and – I hope – ease of use.

Andy says:
24 March 2011

Here’s a thought : Technology should be our slave; we should not be it’s slave. The relevance of this to the topic?
Specifications will always improve over time; more than that, companies are employing people to make what is new and now look like old and then. There’s a very good documentary out there entitled ‘Objectify’ that has an eloquent discussion of commercial design and the pursuit of new products.
On occasion, the new product does not function as well as the previous iteration. If we slavishly chase better specifications we may find ourselves with such a product. Therefore function, not specification, rules.
The iPad 2 has been repeat tested rendering video faster than Mac Pros, yet it has less Ram and a slower processor. This functionality is therefore not dependent upon specification, but more likely dependent on iOS 4.3, the mobile operating system of Apple.
The change that Apple are driving is self serving, but it is also a truth : Ability, Functionality is what makes technology work for us, not simply chasing specification upgrades.

Andy says:
24 March 2011

sorry folks : talking of functionality the ‘submit’ button was inactive and then caught up. I’d be grateful if moderators would remove the unnecessary additional posts.

I’ve done that for you now Andy. It’s best just to give a little bit of time, but shouldn’t take too long to go through. Sorry about that. Thanks.