In recent years each new wave of digital technology has resulted in significant shifts in consumer behavior and the dramatic disruption of existing business models. The personal computer fundamentally changed the way we worked turning office workers into hubs of personal productivity, that is until the wave of email they unleashed eventually started to drown us all, and propelled Microsoft and Intel to huge success at the expense of companies like IBM. The mobile phone changed the way we communicated creating Martini people of us all; available ‘anytime, any place, anywhere’ and spawning vast new competitors like Vodafone and Orange to challenge the dominance of incumbents such as BT. And, most recently the world wide web has fundamentally changed the way we find and share information turning each of us into cats eyes on the information superhighway and Google and Facebook into global powerhouses at the expense of more traditional media brands like The New York Times.
Yet as we stand on the cusp of the next huge wave of disruption in the form of the inexorable rise of the tablet, which according to Forrester will displace notebook computers to become the dominant personal computing platform in the next five years, there is growing evidence to suggest that while the unique characteristics of this latest digital technology will undoubtedly unlock new behaviours and unleash new entrepreneurial business opportunities it will also reenergize existing behaviours and present significant opportunities for those traditional media companies able to adapt to its needs.
Indeed what sets tablets apart in this historical context is that unlike the first PCs, mobile phones or modems, from their inception these devices have been an almost perfect mix of form and function. One only has to put an iPad into the hands of a small child to see how wonderfully intuitive its form is or to invite even the most non technical person to download a book, film or album on a Kindle Fire to appreciate the innate convenience of its function. The result, as the extraordinary growth of the tablet market over the last two years demonstrates, is that despite its relatively high cost the tablet has not gone through the normal adoption cycle of most emerging technologies but has been a mainstream consumer device almost from the very beginning, fitting seamlessly into the existing habits and rituals of those lucky enough to get their hands on them rather than relying on early adopters to create new behaviours to justify their existence.
Perhaps surprisingly however, at least to those who see tablets as a direct replacement for the laptop computer, these habits and rituals have for the majority centred around the home rather than the workplace with research, again from Forrester, showing that 88% of tablet owners use their devices in the living room and 79% in the bedroom compared to only 24% in the workplace. The overwhelming dominance of both the sofa and bed as locations for tablet usage highlight the extent to which people intuitively lean back when they pick up these devices, something that Apple captured beautifully in its launch advertising for the iPad back in 2010. Indeed this natural inclination to lean back and relax with a tablet reflects the fact that it is as much a personal entertainment and exploration device which enhances, rather than replaces, previously analogue media habits such as reading a magazine, watching a movie or listening to music as it is a lean forward information tool that replaces a computer. Somehow curling up on the sofa to watch a movie on an iPad or lying back in bed to read a book on a Kindle Fire already seems as natural as reaching for the remote control or picking up a paperback. This is in contrast to the slight feeling of guilt that often accompanies the use of a laptop computer in these environments.
However, the degree to which tablets are enhancing not simply replacing the analogue lean back experience of consuming long-form content, albeit in digital form, is good news not just for tablet owners but also for the existing media companies whose text, video and audio content is increasingly being consumed by them. The connected nature of the tablet device makes content of all types infinitely more discoverable, while research suggests that tablet users, unlike web users, value the enriched content experience the tablet provides enough to consistently pay for it. In support of this data from Amazon shows that new Kindle users don’t just switch from reading physical books to digital ones but also increase the total number of books they read significantly. Similarly in the video space Netflix have reported seeing a much faster growth in tablet viewing than PC viewing. And, finally here at The Economist the vast majority of our more than 125,000 digital subscribers to our apps for iPad, iPhone and Android are new customers not just print subscribers migrating to digital.
Of course it is far too early to say what the long-term impact of the rise of the tablet will be on consumer behavior. Furthermore the early success of new tablet orientated businesses like Flipboard should put existing media companies on their guard against complacently assuming that everything old is new again. Nevertheless, the degree to which tablets have enriched and extended the traditional lean back content experience should be the source of great excitement for both consumers and media companies as they look to the future. After all, the tablet, like Doc Brown and Marty McFly’s DeLorean, may be the device that helps us to lean back to a richer, more rewarding future.