Are tablets going to save the world? (Yes. No. Maybe So.)

Best I can tell, the iPad was introduced on January 27, 2010. On March 22, 2010, Wired ran an article with the headline “How The Tablet Will Change The World.” In other words, this isn’t a very new idea; people have seen the potential of the tablet since perhaps the minute of the iPad’s launch, and definitely within a month or two of it. You can see similar-type articles from Time MagazineReadWrite, and Business WeekThat last link was written on New Year’s Eve 2009 — i.e. before the launch of the iPad by about a month. People have been loving tablets since a month prior to the official launch of the first major one (I realize Microsoft had Tablet-type things before the iPad, but I’m just being as populist as I can here).

There’s been two stories in the news recently related back to tablets that are kind of interesting: (1) Applebee’s is putting tablets at every table in its 1,860 restaurants (Chili’s has announced similar plans) and (2) David Risher, a former Amazon executive, is on a PR tour for his nonprofit Worldreader, discussing how tablets and e-readers can change the face of global education.

Let’s start with the restaurant stuff first. You can actually trace this movement back to late 2010/early 2011. Some of the bigger names in the space are E La Carte (that’s the company), which produces the Presto (that’s the tablet; kind of an iPad with better battery life). There’s also Ziosk (more in bed with Chili’s than Applebee’s, which might be the grossest non-sentence I’ve ever written) and their tablet, which has over 22 hours of battery life. I’ve only seen tablet ordering once — at JFK Airport, about 10 months ago or so — but it’s in place already in different spots.

On this front, everything makes logical sense. Restaurants are an industry where competitors need to differentiate themselves; since there’s been multiple studies about how quickly a three-year-old can pick up the uses of a tablet, it would seem basic that anyone who walks into a restaurant can figure out how to order on a tablet. That part is awesome. Here’s the part that is troubling: in press releases about this idea, Applebee’s is careful to state that they’re not eliminating actual waiters from the process (obviously, you would still need cookers and servers). That seems logical, but mostly for now. Restaurants are an extremely low-margin business. Applebee’s has 1,860 restaurants, right? Let’s say they try an experiment — the tablet thing is going well, so they cut staff at three restaurants. No change in service, really, and higher profit lines. So then it’s six restaurants. Then it’s nine. Pretty soon it’s 500. Companies (Applebee’s is a company) are designed to make money, not necessarily to employ people or keep them happy. If you drop the fast-food service industry workforce out of America, suddenly you shift the entire paradigm of “what teenagers do to earn money” and “relatively easy-to-acquire low-wage jobs.” That, in turn, shifts everything else. So in the most doomsday scenario possible as relates to restaurants and tablets, suddenly we have an 18% real unemployment rate in America. Not as cool. On this front, tablets can make the ordering experience seem more cool, but might harm the world we know before it helps it.

Now, to education.

The Worldreader stuff is pretty interesting — I realize I am using the term “tablet” and “e-reader” interchangeably here, and I probably shouldn’t be — and tablet introduction to U.S. public schools has been an education trend for a while.

Here’s an NPR story about the rapid rise in tablets-in-schools. Here’s the best part of the article, via a principal whose school is on board with the tablet idea:

“It’s truly a revolution, what’s happening,” he says. “Technology has finally caught up to where truly you hold the Internet in the palm of your hands. The power of the mobile devices that exist now — we have to have to leverage that capacity and to evolve as educators to address those needs.”

Now, here’s the worst part of the article:

“I have concerns after hearing what happened in LA Unified,” Acuna says. “Kids are kids, and they’re going to try to do what they think they can get away with. And not to be mean, but sadly … some of our kids probably have better knowledge of these kind of electronic devices than some of our teachers.”

You can block sites — but then the question is, what do you block? YouTube is extremely valuable as an educational tool — you can find explainers on major events in world history all over that site. So don’t block it, right? But then what if kids go look up clips from TV shows instead? OK, so block Facebook for sure. But Facebook is about connectivity. What if a kid does a really impressive project and has a deliverable to share, and wants that ability? OK, so now there’s a moderate gray issue with Facebook. Block Twitter, for sure! But … Twitter is the definitive way to get real-time information. So … uh … help?

Same article:

“I think it’s futile to try to shut this down completely,” she says. “And it’s a missed opportunity, if we do that, to teach kids how to act appropriately in what will be their lifelong globally networked world.”

Concur with that.

News Corp (i.e. FOX) got into the education tablet market with Joel Klein, formerly the head of NYC Schools. Their tablet was called Amplify. The chargers are melting and News Corp is charging about $250 per tablet. Ultimately, this plan is going to fade away and News Corp will focus on other ways of giving back to education; obviously that’s a prediction, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

That last part brings up an interesting idea around cost, and specifically around the developing world. Consider India. From 2011 to 2012 — one year — India had a 901 percent increase in tablet usage. Data plans in India cost about 1/10th of what they cost in the US (so, the masses can have plans) and tablets there can retail for something around $25 U.S. Tablets played a notable role in “Arab Spring.” They can do the most good, it seems, when the fundamental things we’re thinking about are low cost and access, not the bottom line. That’s the part that scares me: tablets can only work truly for good if people realize their power and not the money they can bring in. The profit side of tablets should be focused on selling them as consumption-devices in industrial nations; that’s fine. If an iPad costs around $316 to build (estimates can vary), and we’re making about $150-$200 off the top of almost every one sold, can’t we provide some to rural schools for no cost, or almost no cost? I read a thing once — can’t find it at present, although this article tackles similar themes — that IBM’s Watson can do remarkable things for health care, but most hospitals can’t afford it. I may be naive (read: I am naive), but IBM has a lot of money. Its people are getting paid. Just drop the price and put it in more medical centers. Help the world. Same with Apple. They have more cash on hand than pretty much any company in the world. Send iPads all over the place. It won’t hurt the bottom line a ton (I don’t think) and you’re “paying it forward” in terms of global development. That’s a good thing, no?

Imagine checking into a hospital and at your bedside, there’s a tablet with all your relevant health info — no forms to fill out! — and a detailed plan of what’s going to happen, down to 10-minute intervals. That would be awesome, right? It’s happening, and it could be happening more broadly. I just sometimes worry that capitalism and the future are periodically at odds. Ah, deep questions for a Wednesday blog post.

Back to the original question: are tablets going to change the world? In some ways, they already have. Within a decade if not sooner, they will be the most mass-consumed computing product in world history. That’s a total paradigm shift. The whole idea of “I can’t answer that question right now, I need to get back to the office” is dead. (There are both positive and negative repercussions to that.) Education, restaurants, health care, and even simple payment plans are inextricably changed forever. So yes, the world has been changed. But saved? That’s a whole different story.

Ted Bauer