The Future of Tablets — and More

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Recent news of a drop in iPad sales1 by Apple triggered some thoughts. Reporting that educational sales of iPads are still on the rise prompted more thinking. Then, I found that some of our customers had a very interesting response to our queries about this area.

We deliver our software as HTML5, making updates unnecessary and allowing for the software to run on any platform: iPad, iPhone, Android device, Chromebook, MacBook, MS Surface, Linux desktop, etc. We can readily convert the software to an iOS app and to an Android app. The question we asked is, “Should we?” The answer, at least from schools, was as resounding “No!”

ipad oct2014

Making predictions is a very risky business, if you care about your credibility. I am going out on a very long limb by making two predictions for the future. Any number of new developments can make these predictions wildly inaccurate or could cement their certainty.

The first prediction is that iPads will continue the decline in sales and eventually level off. There will be some bumps in this path, of course, but the overall process is one of stagnation at best. The article gives some reasons. For example, people are not upgrading their old iPads as quickly as Apple had anticipated. An iPad is not an iPhone and does not engender the mass hysteria with respect to new versions that you see with such a constantly visible status symbol as your cell phone.

Those tablets also don’t have as many preferred uses as many had predicted. Most who can afford an iPad also have a “real” computer that they use for power applications such as word processing. The tablet is mostly used for videos, music, email, texting (when not using the cell phone for that), and so on. In brief, tablets are not supplanting computers in large numbers. Given a computer and a cell phone, with screen size growing apace, the tablet is the “middle child” and is unnecessary to everyday functioning. It’s too large to carry in your pocket and too small for many serious uses.

The above is not to suggest that tablets will vanish, only that they will settle into a niche market until someone radically changes the interface. The touchscreen is magic for young children and some applications. My grandchildren took to them like kids to candy, even at ages 3 and 5. Still, a touchscreen interface can only take you so far. Adding three-finger gestures really doesn’t make it that exciting. The problems lie in two primary areas: screen size and computing power (CPU and memory). The apps for them have been designed to use what’s available. 

To break out into new territory, my thinking is that they must have a great deal more power, power enough to do voice recognition and to see gestures that do not contact the screen. If it becomes possible to project the screen into your eyes so that it appears much larger, then you’ll have something really special. A 3D holographic display would be even more exciting. None of these things will happen soon. The electronic tablet is destined to remain the middle child for the immediate future, and advances in cell phones and/or laptops (e.g., MS Surface as a hybrid tablet/laptop) may destine those tablets for extinction. It happened to minicomputers once the microcomputers (aka PCs) arrived and squeezed the minicomputers out of existence between the mainframes and the micros as the former shrank in price while the latter grew in power.

My second prediction is that the market for apps is already saturated and cannot continue to grow. There are simply too many apps for anyone to search through. Who will make an app if no one can find it? Once again, I will not say that apps will disappear. They will remain viable for many situations in which they just make sense. An app to reach your bank account and make transactions, especially depositing checks, making electronic payments, and just checking your balance is great. These “branded” apps will continue.

However, no one can play thousands of game apps. The “wild west” of game apps is past. An individual making a game app and succeeding in gaining millions of sales is not very likely to happen again. Many other apps fall into the same category.

When you consider the cost of building apps for more than one platform AND maintaining and supporting them, the economics become ludicrous. The explosion of apps will not continue, probably already has declined. Then, there’s the simple fact, mentioned above, that you can readily build HTML5 applications to run on the same devices and only have a single source code to maintain. (That’s what I do.) Once Javascript compilers become available on those platforms, the fate of those apps is sealed. Developers don’t have to learn Objective C or some other proprietary language that’s useless elsewhere. Users don’t have to download and update apps. They only need a link and a username/password to use the application.

This scenario does have a sticking point. No Internet means no application. For this reason, my prediction for the declining future of apps depends on the growth of availability and the rapidly declining cost of Internet access. We are seeing both of those trends today. I think that it’s just a matter of time now before Internet is everywhere. (Well, maybe not in the middle of Death Valley.) You already can use those cell phone towers to reach the Internet, making it as available as a phone call for many.

What do these trends mean for schools? My thoughts here focus on K-12. In my opinion, schools should immediately cancel all of those iPad purchases they have scheduled. Schools are always behind technology — by necessity. We don’t want our schools to jump into every new fad. In this case, they are way behind because they first must recognize an opportunity to improve education. Then, the opportunity must be investigated and discussed by the school board over a series of meetings. A budget must be proposed and passed. Sometimes, it must be voted on by the community as a bond measure. By the time these things take place, five years can readily pass — an entire generation of technology has evolved over that period, and the planned purchase may be obsolete.

This situation poses a corollary challenge to schools. How can they incorporate the latest in educational technology effectively and efficiently? To me, it seems that the major obstacle is the high cost of technology. LAUSD recently canceled their ongoing iPad purchase program that involved over $1 billion and cost over $700 per device. The Global Literacy XPRIZE envisions a $10 tablet within five years that will outperform the first iPads. What a contrast!

The answer seems to me to be looking at the price-performance curve. You should not be climbing above the knee on that curve unless you have a real reason for that extra performance and will gain more in benefits than the extra cost. These days with limited budgets, schools should not be past that knee. They should be capable of projecting the future of hardware and software to make truly informed decisions about their purchases.

New technology in schools must produce better results. Because vendors can always make this claim and can pay education experts to back them up, schools have to be especially careful. They have to understand how the gains will be made and why they will happen for them. For learning, better means deeper understanding that leads to greater retention and to a lifetime of value.

New technology should also be more efficient for learning. In the simplest terms, efficiency for learning translates into time. Students should learn faster with technology than without it. At least this result can be measured, but you should not mistake memorizing faster for learning faster.

Very importantly, technology has always had the promise of saving money overall. Technology purchases should be investments that will pay returns over time, unless you rent or lease the technology, in which case you can measure the savings right away. For example, e-books clearly should cost less annually than the amortized cost of hard-copy books. If they have the ability to deliver word definitions, to highlight passages, and to do everything that a hard-copy book does plus much more, then they win. But schools should not have to buy expensive hardware to make this happen. Students should be able to use their own devices or ones provided to them temporarily (just as with the old books) while they’re in school. If the total cost of switching to e-books is not less than the current paper books, then they should seek another supplier. Eventually, they will be much less expensive.

In another example, very many schools have digital projectors in their classrooms and have at least a single computer with Internet as well. Yet, these same schools have invested a great deal of money in interactive whiteboards (IWBs). Except for setting up the IWB to interact with a display, there’s nothing of note that cannot be done with the existing arrangement of the digital projector and the computer. Schools spent vast sums on these devices with minimal gains in learning. (Special education is an exception.) Wherever they did see gains, those could have been achieved without the IWB. Now those same schools are saddled with high maintenance costs and may find themselves retiring the IWBs as they develop technology problems.

Keep an eye out for the signs of change. Cell phones are growing into the small tablet space. Laptops are becoming slimmer, lighter, and more like tablets. Watch for the tablets to be squeezed or for the evolution of tablets and laptops to make them indistinguishable from each other. The same may happen with tablets and phones. Who is to say which really won out? I hope that it is we, the consumers and schools, who win in the end.

1 Christina Farr and Edwin Chan, “Apple’s iPhone Sales Beat Street but iPad Volumes Slide,” Reuters, 20 Oct. 2014. Also, Darrell Etherington, “Apple CEO Tim Cook Addresses The iPad’s Continued Lack Of Sales Growth,” TechCrunch, 20 Oct. 2014.

2 Responses

  1. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Recent news of a drop in iPad sales1 by Apple triggered some thoughts. Reporting that educational sales of iPads are still on the rise prompted more thinki…  […]

  2. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Recent news of a drop in iPad sales1 by Apple triggered some thoughts. Reporting that educational sales of iPads are still on the rise prompted more thinki…  […]

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