Everybody's talking about the new tablet computer Apple is expected to unveil this month. Some say it will save newspapers by giving them a new platform where they can charge for subscriptions. Some say it will destroy cable TV by letting people purchase shows à la carte over the Internet. Some say the tablet is pointless—nobody needs it, and it will be a total flop. But the truth is no one knows how this device will end up being used—not even Apple.
Yes, Steve Jobs and his team know exactly what the tablet will look like, what chips it will use, and how much it will cost. They've probably created some slick software for the tablet, and maybe they've struck deals with software makers and media companies to deliver content for the device.
But the cool thing about technology is that nobody ever knows how new ideas will evolve. Today's hype around the tablet is a lot like the hype around the iPhone before its 2007 introduction. Back then, just like today, everyone was trying to guess what it would look like and what it would do—and as it turns out, nobody was even close.
The lesson we've learned since then is that even the people who created the iPhone could not have imagined what people would do with the device. Much of the fun of iPhone involves software apps that didn't exist when the iPhone was introduced. Those apps don't come from Apple—they were written by thousands of developers who found inspiration in a new computing platform.
This kind of unpredictability is typical in Silicon Valley. A lot of tech companies start out with no idea what they're going to become, and if they do have an idea, it's usually wrong. One of the big revelations contained in Googled, Ken Auletta's new book about the search giant, is how clueless the company's cofounders were about how to make money. The Google guys started writing code in 1996, but they didn't dream up Google's moneymaking programs, AdWords and AdSense, until 2002 and 2003, respectively. Early on, when an investor told Sergey Brin that Google needed a business plan, Brin responded: "What's a business plan?"
No wonder the old media types didn't recognize Google as a threat. How could they, when even the Google guys had no idea what their company would become? Same goes for other disruptors, like Facebook and Twitter, which have lured millions of people away from TV and other forms of traditional media. That's why old media is in such a pickle: they're competing against nimble rivals who try one thing, then another, until they find something that works.
Facebook was launched in 2004 as a site where college kids could stay in touch with friends. Presumably the site would make money by selling advertising to brands that wanted to reach Facebook's members. But today, as it turns out, the big money comes from something else. In 2007 Facebook began letting outside developers create applications for Facebook. The big hits were games. The game developers make money by selling ad space inside their games. To keep luring in new players, they must buy advertising space from Facebook. If a developer doesn't buy ads, it will get eclipsed by rivals that do. It's pure genius—but it's hardly what Mark Zuckerberg envisioned in his Harvard dorm room back in 2004.
Twitter's founders also had a simple idea—instead of making yet another blogging platform, they would create a "micro-blogging" service where every post could only be 140 characters long. Since its 2006 launch, Twitter has evolved on its own as people kept dreaming up new ways to use it. Who knew Twitter would turn out to be a replacement for RSS, letting you subscribe to blogs and other news feeds? Who knew it would become a form of reality TV, letting you follow the day-to-day lives of celebrities?
For that matter, who at Apple could have forseen that some academics at Stanford would write software that turns the iPhone into a musical instrument, and that today people would form iPhone orchestras?
This kind of creativity and innovation is what makes technology so fun to follow. It's also why making predictions about technology is such an exercise in futility. Whatever Apple announces this month, it will only be a starting point. The really cool stuff will come later, as millions of people start tinkering with the tablet and trading tips, and as thousands of developers get turned loose on a new platform and start pushing the limits of what the device can do. Frankly, I can't wait.
The cool thing about technology today is that nobody can predict how new ideas will evolve. Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone are all used far differently than their founders imagined. The same will be true as users embrace Apple's new device.