Competing With an Archetype

There’s an interesting post over at TechCrunch discussing the current hot topic of the iPad design – or more specifically: how Apple has created a design for a tablet that is so simple and obvious that their competition has no other way forward but to implement their own products the same way, suffering Apple lawsuits in the process.

This discussion started when Apple has provided a set of suggestions to Samsung on how they could design their tablet differently so as to not infringe on Apple’s patents. The suggestions aren’t very interesting because they’re not a genuine discussion of design approaches but are merely ammunition in a lawsuit. What’s interesting is the assumption that Apple’s competitors can only come up with a product that looks just like the iPad because this is simply the best solution to a given set of constraints.

The argument is sound if all you want to do is produce an iPad competitor. The iPad is an archetype for a touch tablet and it is a very elegant solution to the problem of making a 10-inch touch tablet. The problem is that this is exactly what the competition are doing – they are competing with the iPad rather than solving a problem that hasn’t been solved yet. They’re always one step behind because they’re simply trying to re-create the solution that Apple has created for their vision of a touch tablet device.

Before the iPhone, mobile phone touch interfaces weren’t very good. All phones pretty much followed the same model of a screen with a bunch of physical buttons under it. Apple did not like this solution for various reasons – for example: physical keys are locked in place forever on the device, whereas on a touch screen it’s the software that dictates what the visual interface looks like and so it can always be updated when a need arises. Their product didn’t follow the design of their competitors because they envisaged a different device that solved different problems.

Same thing with the iPad. Tablets existed for a long time, but they were thick, heavy, had to be operated with a stylus and came with software designed for the desktop, not a tablet. Apple solved the problem of making them light, easy to operate with your hands, and running software specifically designed for the smaller screen and the new input mechanism. Their solution became a new archetype. If Samsung wants to compete with the iPad, they will inevitably create products that look like the iPad. Competing with an existing archetype limits your output to what’s been done before and what’s been shown to work.

There’s another way: ignore the iPad and solve a different problem your way. You can be in the tablet game without creating iPad clones. Example? Amazon. Amazon are in the tablet space with their Kindle family of devices, but they’re not competing with the iPad because they’re solving a different problem. The Kindle is optimized for reading: E Ink display, very thin, very light, exceptionally long battery life. The iPad cannot match the Kindle here, in the same way the Kindle cannot match the iPad in other areas like Web browsing, video and custom apps. Because of this, the products never really compete head to head and both of the devices are a success because they’ve been designed for a different purpose.

I’m not defending Apple’s lawsuit here – I don’t think that trying to prevent others from producing their own tablets is a good thing, but I also don’t think that Apple’s design is the only way to make a tablet. It’s the only way to make an iPad, sure, but there’s no rule that says you have to make another iPad. Designing something better is the real challenge.