The High Road and the Low Road

In following technology developments for the last thirty years, its amazing how consistent the trends are and how often they are repeated. I also find it amusing that so many manufacturers do not see the all too obvious pattern. In other words, like many people, they don’t learn from history. In my observation technologies develop along two different paths. One path is what I call the productivity path. These products add such value and efficiency that they demand a premium over a long period of time. The second path is the entertainment path. These products provide new experiences and forums for entertainment, they have a level of novelty but do not offer productivity gains. These products start high but rapidly turn into a commodity with manufacturers racing to the bottom.

Universally good ideas, implemented well, have a strong chance of widespread success. The consumers of technology are well connected and social networking allows the wildfire to spread at previously unseen speed. Just a few of these basic categories from the last few years include:

1. Smartphones
2. Tablets
3. Motion Based Gaming
4. MP3 Players
5. Gps
6. Flat Screen Displays
7. Netbooks
8. Laptops

When you look at this list you can sort out the devices that have a business focus versus consumer entertainment. Smartphones and laptops stand out immediately to me. Along with desktop workstation grade computers, these devices literally make businesses money. As a result the cost of these devices has not eroded over extended periods of time. As an extreme example in 1987 a decently powerful desktop setup cost about $1,500. If you purchase a good quality workstation today it is easy to spend $1,500 on the setup. It is certainly possible to buy cheap pc’s but it is hard to get long standing value from consumer grade computers. Today, you will pay roughly the same for a next generation smartphone as you did when the first iPhone came out.

When you consider netbooks you can obviously see the difference. Netbooks were all the craze a couple of years ago, flying off the shelves, they created a whole new market. Today they are simply the cheap laptop option, on sale from the get go, they are an entry level laptop option or a computer for a child. The Ultrabook initiative is an attempt to add back value, but it will likely follow the same path as other small form factors before it. Anyone remember the UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC)? Why would doing the same thing result in a different outcome? Is that not the definition of insanity? It seems pretty obvious to me that Ultrabooks will find that same place on the bargain pile that netbooks, UMPCs, and others found before them.

So what makes tablets any different? Well, Apple of course. My projection is the iPads will follow the same trajectory as iPods not iPhones. The reason is simple. They are an entertainment device. There will always be the status focused crowd that wants the latest Apple toy. But just like the MP3 player market you already see the industry response. Amazon’s Kindle and other $200 responses are just the beginning. I expect we will see sub $100 tablets in your local Walmart very soon. Android is too easy to develop a product on, and the temptation will be too great. Ironically it was HP that showed us the way by dumping the TouchPad at a discount. I believe every manufacturer sat up and took notice of the response. Prepare for a flood of cheap tablets.

The cheap tablets will be successful for the same reason cheap MP3 players are a mainstay of discount stores around the world. They will play videos and surf the web. They will entertain. As long as they will play Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, consumers will be happy. The challenge Apple has at this point is there are viable options to iTunes. Content is flooding the interwebs and Apple cannot control it. The iPod is at its end after a long successful run, the iPad may suffer the same fate sooner rather than later.

If I am wrong I will be taking a lot of grief from my Apple centric friends. All will be in good fun. What I hope to see is the industry stop falling all over itself and wasting development dollars on devices that will simply become commodities. We need to focus innovation where it will build, not entertain. Our industry can actually play a role in moving the global economy out of recession. Innovation drives growth. With the proper technologies in place whole new industries can develop. Doing this can also be exceptionally profitable, ask Google.

One Comment

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