There’s No One Device To Change The World.

I consider myself to be pretty lucky to be living in a time when technical advancements are happening so rapidly that the world as we knew it 10 years ago seems so distant as to almost be a dream. Today I carry in my pocket as much computing power as what used to be held in high end desktops and if I so desire I can tap into untold pools of resources from cloud based companies for a fraction of what the same ability would’ve cost me even a couple years ago. With technology moving forward at such a fever pace it is not surprising that we manage to come up with an almost infinite number of ways in which to utilize it. Within this continuum of possibilities there are trends towards certain aspects which resonate with a need or want that certain audiences have, thereby driving demand for a product centered around them. As such we’ve seen the development of many devices that are toted as being the next revolution in technology with many being touted as the future of technology.

Two such ideas spring to mind when I consider recent advances in computing technology and both of them, on the surface, appear to be at odds with each other.

The first is the netbook. I can remember clearly the day that they first started making the rounds in the tech news circles I frequent with the community sentiment clearly divided over this new form of computing. In essence a netbook is a rethink of traditional computing ideals in that the latest and greatest computer is no longer required to do the vast majority of tasks that users require. It took me back to my years as a retail salesman as I can remember even back then telling over 90% of my customers that any computer they bought from us would satisfy their needs since all they were doing was web browsing, emailing and documents. The netbook then was the embodiment of the majority of users requirements with the added benefit of being portable and most importantly cheap. The market exploded as the low barrier to entry brought portable computing to the masses who before netbooks never saw a use for a portable computer.

The second is tablets. These kinds of devices aren’t particularly new although I’ll forgive you if your first ever experience with such a device was the iPad. I remember when I was starting out at university I looked into getting a tablet as an alternative to carrying around notepads everywhere and was unfortunately disappointed at the offerings. Back then the tablet idea was more of a laptop that got a swivel touchscreen added to it. Couple that with the fact that in order to keep costs down they were woefully underpowered you had devices that, whilst they had their niche, didn’t have widespread adoption. The introduction of a more appliance focused device in the form of the iPad arguably got the other manufacturers developing devices for consumption rather than general computing. Now the tablet market has exploded with a flurry of competing devices, all looking to capture this next computing revolution.

Both of these types of devices have been touted as the future of computing at one point or another and both have been pushed as being in direct competition with each other. In fact the latest industry numbers and predictionswould have you believe that the tablet market has caused a crash in the number of netbook sales. The danger in drawing such conclusions is that you’re comparing what amounts to an emerging market to an established maturing industry. Slowing growth might sound like a death knell to an industry but that’s actually more to do with the fact that as a market matures there are more people not buying the devices because they already have one, I.E. the market is reaching saturation point. Additionally the percentages give the wrong idea since you’re ignoring the market size. In 2010 alone there have already been 20 million netbooks sold, over 6 times that of the iPad and similar devices. Realistically these devices aren’t even in competition with each other.

So why did I choose the rather grandiose title for this post rather than say “Tablets vs Netbooks, Facts and Figures”? The answer, strangely enough, lies within spaghetti sauce:

(I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch that entire video, it’s quite fantastic)

The talk focuses on the work of Howard Moskowitzwho is famous for reinventing the canned spaghetti sauce industry. Companies approached him to find out what the perfect product would be for their target markets. After following tradition scientific methods he found that his data bore no correlation to the variables that he had to play with until he realised that there could be no perfect product, there had to be perfect products. The paradigm shift he brought on in the food industry can be seen in almost all products they produce today with specific sets of offerings that cater to the various clumps of consumers that desire their products.

How the heck does this relate to tablets and netbooks? Simple, neither one of these types of products is the perfect solution to end user computing and neither were any of the products that came before it. Over time we’ve discovered trends that seem to work well in worldwide markets and we’ve latched onto those. Then companies attempt to find the perfect solution to their users needs by trying to aggregate all possible options. However no one product could attempt to satisfy everyone and thus we have a diverse range of devices that fit our various needs. To make the three types of sauces analogy there are those who like their computing focused on consumption (tablets, MIDs, consoles), creation (desktops, laptops, netbooks) and integration (smartphones). These are of course wholly unresearched categories, but they seem to ring true from my anecdotal experience with friends and their varying approaches towards computing.

So whilst we may have revolutions and paradigm shifts in the computing world no one of them will end up being the perfect solution to all our needs. As time goes by we will begin to notice the trends and clumps of users that share certain requirements and develop solutions for them so the offerings from companies will become increasingly focused on these key areas. For the companies it means more work as they play catch up as each of these revolutions happens and for us it means a greater computing experience than we’ve ever had before, and that’s something that never fails to excite me.

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