Is the IPad a Device or a Computer? The TSA Decides!

What a Trip to the Airport Taught Me About the Tablet

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Michael E. Kassan
Michael E. Kassan
Last week I was in California surrounded by top tech execs at The Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital conference on the cliffs facing the ocean in Palos Verdes, after which I had an epiphany (and a bagel) at an airport in Northern California.

I was given a vision of what I think may be the most critical question every citizen of the communications ecosystem must answer in the next few years: Are tablets going to make laptops obsolete?

We all know that what comes next in technology means life or death for many companies, products, services and agencies and can transform what we think we know in an instant. So what's most intriguing about the advent of the digital tablet is not only what it does but what it portends.

The epiphany began innocently enough. After the conference wrapped, I went up to San Francisco on business. I was at the security checkpoint at the San Francisco Airport, doing the anti-terrorist polka -- shimmy out of your shoes, take off your belt, empty your pockets and keep your ID clenched between your teeth -- and putting my bags on the conveyor belt.

As it happened, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Search Monkey CEO David Goldberg, the former top music man at Yahoo, had also gone north after attending the Palos Verdes event, and we found ourselves at security at the same time.

As we shed articles and clothing at the checkpoint, we realized none of us knew what to do with our tablets. Are they to be treated as computers or like smartphones when one is doing the anti-terrorist shimmy? Should we decloak them like we do our laptops, hold them in our hands, or just leave them in the bag?

It turns out that tablets are so new, nobody's made that call. We were told that whether or not to require passengers to unpack and display their iPads is up to the discretion of the local TSAs around the country.

In San Francisco, at least, they didn't see iPads as PCs. More like a big iPhone, really. The call there was "if your bag is full, take your tablet out."

And as I watched our luggage jiggle its way into the darkness of the x-ray machine, the epiphany hit me like a runaway luggage cart -- are tablets going to supplant personal computers? All sorts of important stuff and a lot of jobs hinge on the answer.

The question, inevitably, was posed to Apple CEO Steve Jobs at last week at All Things Digital. Not surprisingly, he thinks the tablet will supplant the laptop.

"The transformation of the PC to new form factors like the tablet is going to make some people uneasy because the PC has taken us a long ways," said Jobs. "The PC is brilliant...and we like to talk about the post-PC era, but it's uncomfortable."

Not so, argued Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the same sun-kissed gathering 36 hours later. The PC's form may morph a bit, he said, it may shed a couple of ounces here and a keyboard there, but it won't give way to tablets because not everybody can afford five electronic devices.

Users need one computing machine to do everything they need done on a computer, Ballmer contended, and the iPad doesn't -- during his interview, in fact, Jobs was put on the defensive a bit when it was noted that some people don't think the iPad works well for content creation.

"I was in a meeting the other day and someone tried taking notes with it. That was kind of interesting," Ballmer joked during his session. In any case, the tablet won't consume the personal computer, he added, because the iPad already is a personal computer.

"Calling the iPad something other than a PC is just marketing," he claimed, and, alluding to Microsoft's own tablet plans, said "the race is on between our two companies."

Clearly, consumers expect more from a tablet than just being able to read a book with it or rotate a picture. So the Apple czar's argument does sound a bit disingenuous. Maybe more than a bit disingenuous.

Anyway, imagine what a strategic challenge the question must pose for the good folks who work for TSA at the San Francisco airport—where, no doubt, everybody who passes through owns at least five electronic devices, probably per pocket.

The same policy they employ in Northern California was in place at LAX when I got home to Los Angeles. God knows what they do in the airport at Kenosha, Wisconsin; no doubt they'll face the question soon enough as well.

But the fate of the transportation business doesn't depend on the answer. Ours does. And really, the public will be the final arbiter of this issue.

Still, if the industry cannot or will not come to a tablet consensus, I do have a suggestion. Let's leave it to the TSA to decide in the meantime, and the rest of us can all go get a nice bagel.

Michael E. Kassan is chairman and CEO of MediaLink, LLC, a leading Los Angeles- and New York City-based advisory and business development firm that provides critical counsel and direction on issues of marketing, advertising, media, entertainment and digital technology.
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