Stop the Killing

Soon, Microsoft will launch an iPad killer. I know this because Steve Ballmer made some comments about how Microsoft doesn't like to see rival Apple stealing the show with their tablet, and the Microsoft CEO claims the company will have an answer to Apple's product soon. So, CNN emblazons its home page with a declaration that an iPad killer from Microsoft is on the way.[Image via QQ Tech]

But don't call Detective Horatio Caine just yet! Because before Microsoft can bring its own tablet to market, Research In Motion might be gunning for the iPad as well. Rumors now point to a tablet from the BlackBerry-maker, and the company has allegedly registered the domain which could give a clue about the tablet's name. Of course, RIM infamously threatened to sue Samsung over the latter company's BlackJack line of phones, so the BlackPad domain registration could easily be RIM defending its copyright in case a rival decides to prefix "Black-" onto a competing tablet. Whatever the name, though, one thing is clear. RIM is trying to KILL Apple. Not just compete, but KILL!

Of course, it's going to be a crowded courtroom when the murder goes on trial. Because besides RIM and Microsoft, HP is also working on a criminal tablet of its own. Presumably running webOS, and succeeding the fabled HP Slate tablet, HP is working on a device that will absolutely kill the iPad. Dead. Deceased.

What the hell is wrong with tech journalists that they cannot conceive of competition in the market without branding one product the king, and casting every competing product as a potential regicide? Has the bookstore run out of thesauri? Are we really such a bloodthirsty lot? Of course not. Calling one product a killer of another is simply lazy, sensationalistic journalism. It's simply dumb, on a number of counts.

It's a big world out there

The biggest reason this –killer idea is stupid is because the market is so huge that no product needs to kill another to become a smash success. Let's take a product that seems to have a monopoly on the market. As of last fall, Apple claims that it has sold 220 million iPods. Apple's music player is far and away the dominant species in the market. Everybody has one, right? Not so fast. First of all, in the most grand terms, there are 6.7 billion people in the world. That means less than 4% of the world's population owns an iPod. But that's only the case if every owner only had 1 iPod. In fact, on average iPod owners have more than 1 device, so the actual percentage is lower.

To put that into perspective, Sony has sold more than 340 million Walkman devices (including cassette players, CD players and basic radios) since the brand was introduced. Nokia, the largest mobile handset maker in the world, shipped 111 million units in Q2 2010 alone according to the company's own estimates. But even though Nokia dominates the world phone market, the company barely holds a top 5 market share position in the U.S.

In other words, there is room for many different devices and competitors. There is so much room that different companies can be wildly successful, hold top positions in various markets, and still leave room for upstarts and resurging brands.

Murder is the case that they gave me

Why affix the killer label? Who wants it, anyway? Do consumers want to buy the device that killed the competition? Do manufacturers want to perpetuate this idea, that only one device can be king and to compete another device has to take the throne by force? Of course not. It's simply poor, sensationalistic journalism.

Journalists are a tool of their readership. We are the eyes and ears of our readers, seeing and hearing things that you would want to see and hear if you had the time. But you don't, so I'll do that work for you. When it comes to technology, I have an added job. I'm here to help you make a buying decision. I report the facts, I make objective and subjective proclamations, and you have a better idea about whether or not to buy something. I don't tell you what to buy. That's advertising. I tell you what I think about a device. How it measures up to a company's claims. How it measures up to the competition. Sometimes, I might even tell you whether I would buy a device or skip it.

That doesn't mean I only care about my readers. I also care about the companies I cover. My ultimate goal is to put the best product into consumers' hands. Sometimes that means telling a consumer what to buy. Sometimes that means telling a manufacturer what to produce. Is that bias? No. I offer my services and opinions equally to every type of consumer I can imagine, and every manufacturer who asks.

So, who does it serve to call a product an iPad-killer, for instance? Certainly it doesn't help the consumer. Do you know what will be the real iPad killer? The next iPad. Presumably, the next iPad will do everything the current iPad does, plus a little more. In the best case, it will improve upon the original. Then, I would be a fool to recommend the original iPad over the new model.

But in every other case, I've never seen a competing product that does every single thing the current king can do and more. There are always differences. A different industrial design. A different user interface. Different capabilities. Different flaws. If it were so easy to say, of two products with so many fundamental differences, that one will be the best for everyone, while the other is good for nobody, I would be out of a job. That's not how consumers work, and it's not how manufacturers work.

The iPad is thin and elegant, but it's hard to grip with one hand. The iPad has a 9.7-inch screen, which may be too big or too small for some people. The iPad offers apps from a carefully curated, though completely locked-down app store. In almost every aspect of the iPad, there is room for competition to come up with a completely different and no less successful choice. A thicker shell that is easier to hold. A smaller screen. An open software platform. If you want those things, maybe the Dell Streak is for you. But that doesn't make the Dell Streak an iPad-killer. It's just a different choice.

Journalists doing the job of PR

Calling a product a –killer doesn't help journalists, either. We always look stupid when we apply absolute labels to products based on our own, subjective opinions. Call something an iPad killer today, and in six months your opinion will be forgotten if you're lucky. But if your readers don't forget, you'll have egg on your face. This is the most subjective, biased label you can apply to a product. It imagines violence, overthrow, failure and death. If RIM releases a tablet in the fall, and in two years it becomes the top selling product on the market, while the iPad has all but disappeared, then it might be appropriate to call RIM's tablet an iPad-killer. Until then, why apply the label?

Because it generates clicks. It piques interest. If I'm an iPad fan or a BlackBerry fan, or if I'm thinking about buying a new tablet, I might be interested in reading about the new product that will kill the existing champ. Of course, I won't learn anything substantial from that –killer label. The –killer label is all about positioning a product in the reader's mind. It's not about objective facts, and it's not even about subjective opinions. It's about positioning in the market. By attaching the –killer label to a product, journalists are doing the job of PR and marketing professionals.

Live and let live

Strangest of all is that technology journalists seem to be the only journos so enamored with the –killer label. You would never hear political journalists call Sarah Palin a President Obama-killer, right? Besides being distasteful, even those hacks in politics know this is taking the argument too far. You don't hear movie reviewers calling "Tron" an "Avatar"-killer, even though both are blockbuster 3D sci-fi movies. Reviewers know that the world is big enough for both films. The term is certainly not limited to consumer electronics, but it is telling that it shows up mostly in fields that also bear their share of fanboys. It's a fanboy term. When journalists adopt it for bona fide news stories, they are baiting the fanboys, and that's horrible journalism.

Let's stop using the –killer label. It doesn't provide any real, useful or even interesting information. It represents journalists doing the work of marketing. It caters to the least objective, least reasonable readers in our audience. I would declare this column a killer-killer, but I don't want to start a war. I just want the stupid term to retire, quietly.