|SPHERE OF INFLUENCE – a software company
|Posted by Thad Scheer
Does the new Surface tablet lack a Strong Center?
Background: Theresa Smith has been doing a ton of work since 2007 developing a holistic product Design philosophy around the concept of Strong Centers. The concept itself is derived from the works of Christopher Alexander. Theresa’s research has taken the concept deep into the arena of Product Design and Software.
A Strong Center isn’t any single characteristic, it’s everything – it’s the whole product all at once. Every Design decision speaks at the same time but in one voice that creates one identity. When a product has a Strong Center it means the entire product as a whole imputes a single defining identity, purpose, language, and virtue. Every element of Design combines to cause a product’s Strong Center to emerge. Such products tend to resonate with people and become favorites because the products belong in the Universe exactly where they are, doing exactly what they do. Once you see the product, it’s hard to imagine how any Universe could exist without it.
Unfortunately, most products lack Strong Centers because their Design elements speak all at once on top of each other in a cacophony of competing voices that prevents a single emergent identity. Such products seem to have no central purpose or place in the Universe; they can’t announce what they are, where they fit, or how to use them. Audiences dislike and distrust such products based on instinct and are often unconscious as to why.
Strong Centers are what Christopher Alexander called “quality without a name”. Jonathan Ive describes products that are so right in Design that they “could not be any other way”; meaning the Design is at harmony with current expectations for a thing people have never seen before. Matthew E. May describes such products as “missing all the right things”.
As product people we must look at technology through the lensing of both Product Design and Product Strategy. The category and positioning of a product are part of the Design, just as Design is the boldest of the influences governing category and positioning.
Authenticity is the superglue that holds a Strong Center together. For example, everything about Apple’s iPad is authentically “grabable”. You never question what to do with an iPad, it’s obvious that you are supposed grab it. As Ive has said, “everyone knows what to do with a handle”. iPad is not for desks or tables or laps, it’s for grabbing and holding. That authenticity is expressed in elements ranging from the subtle tapering of the aluminum back to the details of the digital experience. It’s also expressed in the elements that are missing, such as the lack of any type of kickstand or keyboard. Even iPad’s apps are grabable, there’s no stylus or mouse or mindreading gizmo; everything about the device creates an authentically hands-on experience from the first meeting of the eye to the most detailed exploration. Moreover, iPad employs “layered authenticity” by building upon the original iPhone’s “touchable” ethos. iPad is in some way a large iPhone because glass is the central design element, but it is also its own thing. iPad imputes a meaning that is detached from iPhone or any other product that existed before. People know exactly when to use their iPad as distinct from their phone or laptop. iPad fits a niche in our lives, generally the last 10 minutes of the day, just before bed (a friend at comScore told me that).
Before its launch critics thought iPad was a terrible idea, it was going to be the infamous “fourth screen” and therefore a flop. That would have been true if iPad had a different Design; i.e., had the Design incorporated a keyboard, a kickstand, and the ability to run ordinary Mac OS X desktop applications. But it didn’t. iPad was missing all the right things (using Matthew E. May’s terminology) and that helped it redefine (reboot) the category of tablet. Before iPad the category was called “tablet PC”, now it’s just called “tablet” and is unquestionably part of the super-category “mobile”. I should note that no laptop, not even ultrabooks, have managed to be included in the “mobile” super-category.
IS IT MISSING ENOUGH OF THE RIGHT THINGS?
Back to Microsoft’s new Surface tablet, it’s got tons of compelling features but is it missing enough of the right things or does the Design allow too many voices to talk at once? Does the Design give rise to anything authentic?
I’m looking at Microsoft’s photo gallery as I write this and almost every picture shows the Surface tablet in “laptop configuration”; i.e., the kickstand is out and the keyboard is exactly as you would expect from a clamshell laptop.
The Surface tablet’s main feature seems to be the Metro Ux. Without a doubt, Metro is an awesome mobile experience and might even be more touchable than iOS. However, the i5 version of the Surface tablet also runs ordinary desktop software like Word and Excel. Those applications are not authentically touchable, they are authentically desktop. The obvious question is, doesn’t that throw the mobile vibe off-balance? Isn’t that why even the lightest ultrabooks aren’t considered “mobile”?
I think consumers will be confused about what the Surface tablet is and that will translate to reluctance. How can it be good at being touchable and good at being something else at the same time? How can it be an ultrabook and a tablet at the same time? Where does it belong in our lifestyle? Are we supposed to recycle our ultrabooks and give away our iPads? Honestly, I don’t see giving up either because the Surface tablet is not an awesome ultrabook and also not authentically grabable (they didn’t even taper the edges so you could pick it up off a coffee table).
The kickstand and keyboard are things people buy in large numbers for iPad, but because they are add-ons those things don’t alter the Strong Center. What is the Strong Center of this new Microsoft tablet?
I think the Strong Center is that it is authentically Windows 8. If you are a Win8 fanatic then you will love this. As for the less fanatical 99% of the world, I’m not sure this device has a place in your life. I see some obvious niche applications but not a huge consumer demand. The Universe would still feel whole without this device. I don’t think Microsoft succeeded in rebooting or redefining an existing consumer product category, nor did they invent a new category. Their Design expresses too many competing voices at once with no Strong Center beyond the ode to Win8.
When companies use Design without creating Strong Centers, as Microsoft appears to have done, they end up creating something nobody can figure out and few people want. Bummer…it could have been awesome.