Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting



The Hammer and the Nail…

I’m sure that you have heard the folk wisdom that “to a hammer everything looks like a nail”.  That saying is typically intended to apply to those whom we perceive to be of a narrow minded nature or stuck in their traditional ways of doing things.  But could such an unintended narrow viewpoint also affect the development of interesting new products?    

I think we have a recent and very dramatic example to illustrate just such an occurrence.  Consider the recent success of the iPad.  Once the iPhone became an unqualified success, it was quite easy to imagine that a larger version with even more versatility could be a desirable device.  The easy-to-use touch screen facilitating our ability to search for information and to communicate with others from any location and under all circumstances is something that all of us can readily appreciate and enjoy. 

But is the iPad really a new idea?   What about the tablet computers that were touted a number of years ago but never became successful products?  Certainly the concept of a portable flat display with touch interactivity has been known for many years.

Not so many years ago, Microsoft made a major effort to develop what they decided to call the “tablet computer”.  As I remember the events, this was a favorite product that Bill Gates personally pushed hard to try to get into general use.  I remember going to presentations by Microsoft managers where Powerpoint slide presentations were made using these handheld tablets.  I never could quite understand why one would want to prance about the stage holding a tablet computer cradled in one arm while poking at it with the fingers of the other hand just to change slides on a screen.  Furthermore, this uncomfortable arrangement made the use of a laser pointer almost impossibly difficult.   

And here is where I think the wisdom of the “hammer and the nail” comes to the fore.  When Microsoft envisioned the tablet computer all they could see was a modified – and presumably advanced -- version of a Windows-based laptop computer.  That of course meant that these new tablet computers would likewise be used for word processing, spreadsheets, power point presentations, and maybe some e-mail activity.  Using a touch screen or a stylus on a tablet display for such activities has marginal benefits at best. 

The big “hammer” in Redmond had the idea for a new “nail” but simply could not envision the tablet computer as anything other than a reconfigured device for doing the activities that were generating all those great software sales for the company.  No matter how hard Microsoft (and its hardware partners) tried, consumers could not see the benefits of giving up the keyboards on their laptop computers for a tablet with a stylus and/or touch screen.  A modified version of a laptop computer without a keyboard just wasn’t going to be even a marginally  successful product.

Of course it wasn’t only Microsoft that couldn’t envision an iPad-like product.  At the time, no one else -- including Apple -- saw it either.  What apparently had to happen to open up our creative vision was to observe the evolution of cell phones as not only useful for voice communications but as location independent information acquisition devices and as our ever-present communication companions.  Once our cell phone usage broadened from voice communications to encompass acquiring all sorts of useful information, the concept of a display with a touch screen made eminently more sense.  Just point your fingers at what you want to know and there it is on the display screen – no need to boot up a computer or find a place to sit down to use one. 

Thus, the cell phone led the way to broadening our vision of what a portable communications device could really do.  And going back even further, the nascent birth of that evolution was most likely stimulated by the first efforts to include low resolution digital cameras into cell phones.

Being able to accurately predict the future would be of great value – both intellectually and commercially.  But I’m afraid that such talents are simply beyond our capabilities.  Over and over we see famous -- and sometimes not-so-famous -- personages claim to be able to predict where technology is going to take us.  Usually the next five or ten years are not so hard to envision if the predictions are based on extrapolations of developing technology and the scale-up of worldwide production capabilities.  That, for example, was the case for LCD growth that could quite accurately be predicted during the first decade of this century. 

Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for products such as electronic book readers or 3D television.  We really don’t know where those are going to end up -- because technology growth is not the only determinant for their success.   And as for yet other new products that we should try to envision?   Well, we’ll just have to try lots of new innovations and see which ones become accepted as mainstream.  The natural selection process only allows a limited number of successes.  That means lots of “hammering” on new kinds of “nails” before we find the right new combinations.  The good news is that there are still lots of opportunities out there for new kinds of displays and new ways to use them.

Should you wish to comment on this topic or others, you can reach me directly from this site, by email at, or by a conventional voice telephone at 425-898-9117.