Sunday, February 13, 2011

are we destined for more form factors?

(If form factor is in fact the term I'm looking for here.)

So for awhile, there's been this idea floating around tech circles, I think called "convergence." It's the idea that the number of devices people own is going to shrink, as more and more features and power are crammed into smaller and smaller packages. As many, many people have reported, a decent smart phone houses so many features that even the term "phone" is reductive. Single-function devices, the conventional wisdom goes, are dead, dead, dead, and that means less devices for everyone.

But is that true?

Speaking anecdotally (and if you are averse to conjecture in this context, this post is not for you), I don't think it's true, or at least, it isn't true in the sense of resulting in less and less devices for each consumer. I think the Ipad should be taken as a sign of things to come: not less form factors, but more, and in direct response to market saturation and the need for tech companies to expand their product lines.

Think of your average techie who has some money to spend. For young, fairly affluent people, it's entirely ordinary to have a smartphone, tablet, eInk ereader like the Kindle, notebook/laptop computer, video game console (or two!), desktop computer, and HDTV. It's not that uncommon for someone to even add a netbook to that list, and streaming media boxes/media center PCs are growing more and more common.Yes, your smartphone can do a hell of a lot of things, but people still want more, and certainly, companies want to sell you more.

People have been predicting the demise of the desktop computer for as long as I can remember, but it never happens. Desktop computer sales remain strong, as well as desktop OS sales. I think that the realities of the gadget and tech press make this narrative endlessly attractive to tech writers; there is competitive pressure to both predict major changes in the future and to speak as sweepingly and boldly as possible. There is just so much tech media out there on the Internet, only the loudest claims get listened to. But it turns out that people still like to do things like play the latest games, use a large monitor for photo editing, encode and encrypt DVDs and Blu-Rays, and use powerful professional audio and video editing systems. So the desktop survives.

Anyway, why haven't we seen the expected convergence of all tech into one device? A few reasons. First, it's important to say that no matter how much software progresses, there are physical limitations on technology that are difficult or impossible to breach. Not all tech issues can be resolved through time and Moore's Law. The perfect example of this is screen size. For years, in cell phones, the push was smaller, smaller, smaller. But the Droid X and EVO 4G each made a splash by going larger, specifically in screen size. When a phone is only used to make phone calls, more size is a disadvantage. When a phone is regularly used to watch YouTube or surf the web, size becomes a commodity. But that involves a trade off. Until we come up with some sort of next gen projection tech, you either choose the most pocketable, portable device, or you choose the best screen to look at. It's exactly for this reason-- the desire for portability combined with the desire for more screen real estate-- that tablets have emerged in such a public way.

This is also true of other issues, such as physical controls. The fact that people still buy netbooks, aside from their affordability compared to tablets, stems from the reality that (propaganda aside) typing on a touch screen simply isn't as easy, accurate, or comfortable as typing on a physical keyboard. Or consider the Nintendo DS and its multitude variations. The DS, a device used almost exclusively for gaming, is exactly the kind of single-function gadget that tech-head CW has insisted will die out. But the DS has something an iPhone, iPad, or most Android smartphones and tablets will never have: physical buttons, d-pads, and analog sticks laid out and specifically devoted to gaming. The advantage of this should be obvious to anyone who has played your average iPhone or Android games, which (Angry Birds notwithstanding) are terrible, generally speaking. Many major genres and types of game simply aren't meant for touch controls. That's why third-party weirdness like this exists.

Incidentally, one of the places where the tech media pushes a narrative to the point of dishonesty is in the app-market triumphalism. Major gadget and tech sites constantly report the number of apps sold and downloaded, rather than the price of those apps or the profit that they generate, as the essential information for the success of app stores. This is misleading because of how many apps are free or a dollar, and also how many are barely used. A quarter of apps downloaded are used exactly once and never again. Compare to Nintendo's unprecedentedly strong  DS platform; games typically sell for $30. That's got to matter for a consideration of who "rules" gaming. (A consideration of game quality would be nice, too.) But the narrative is that downloaded apps are the future and physical games are the past, and as is their habit, they push the stories that they feel best fit the narrative, rather than trying to honestly assess the state of the tech world.

I digress. The biggest reason form factors proliferate, I think, is simply that businesses need more devices to sell, and for that reason I want to talk for a minute about the iPad.

I want to preface this by saying that I have quit arguing PC vs. Mac cold turkey. (Although, if arguing PC vs. Mac is my alcoholism, then Andrew Sullivan's recent "Apple and Our Culture" series was like learning an ex-wife was getting remarried. To my brother. On Christmas. In a distillery.) But the way that the tech media interacts with Apple and its products is really important. Here's what I think happened with the iPad: I think Apple put out a device in a form factor that was almost entirely niche, and the tech media was immediately ready to accept that form factor as a serious contender.

Remember that, despite its reception as a revolutionary device, tablets as expressed in the iPad represent an idea that has been around for quite some time. Notoriously, Bill Gates predicted the iPad by years and years. So it's not like the iPad idea was particularly game-changing. Rather, the fact that it was Apple that put it into practice gave the form factor immediate legitimacy. I've probably played with an iPad for a total of 15 minutes, so I'm not the best to judge, but it does seem to me that Apple has realized the concept quite nicely. But that isn't why the iPad created immediate legitimacy for the form factor; it only took the Apple name. Again, I'm not denying the accomplishment of Apple, only trying to be honest about what the mechanism was that legitimized the tablet in the eyes of the media. The widespread mocking of Bill Gates in the tech media for not implementing his idea doesn't reflect the simple reality that even an identical Microsoft iPad would have been met with a far harsher, more skeptical critical evaluation than the exact same device as presented by Apple. That's just the reality of the gadget blogs and media; Apple has an enormous advantage in a credulous and sympathetic press, in comparison to Google and certainly to Microsoft. Whether that's a product of their track record, their advertising/propaganda machine, or both is a matter of debate.

What's interesting is that this isn't necessarily a bad thing for the industry. If you define success in terms of beating Apple, sure, it's a bad thing. But look at all of the myriad tablet options out there. Some will be profitable, and some won't be, but they're all entering a marketplace that exists in large part because Apple decided to create it. In the short term, that's probably good for the industry as a whole. In the long run, we'll see if it's a healthy dynamic or not. I don't think it's going to change; I can't imagine a situation where the tech press's baked-in preference for Apple products takes a hit.

So look forward into the future. It's hard for me to imagine a new form factor that people could desire. But two years ago, I never would have thought that there would be room for a device inbetween the smart phone and the laptop, and yet tablets have exploded. There's a clear reason for this: if you are a tech company, what good does convergence do you? If you actually could cram every tech need into a smartphone, you're putting all of your eggs into that basket. Even if it's clearly the best smartphone on the market, you're setting a certain threshold for how many devices you're going to sell in a quarter. Sure, people will upgrade eventually. But people only have so much money to spend on phones, and of course, the two year contracts that subsidize expensive smartphoness are an essential element of the basic economics of the industry.

If you're a tech company, it seems to me that the opposite of what you want is convergence, and the iPad demonstrates that. It's true that single function devices the MP3 players seem less likely to emerge or endure, but total devices, I conjecture, are going to rise. This leads to a lot of redundancy-- you can listen to music on your phone, on your ereader, on your tablet, on your notebook, and on your desktop. But people love to buy gadgets and companies love to sell them.

So while I can't imagine a new form factor, my guess is a new one is coming. And if you want a prediction of which will get the blessing of the gadget press, look to Apple.


Joseph FM said...

Totally agreed with you on this. It makes sense too! The only thing I would quibble with is that I think it actually is pretty odd to have a tablet and an eInk ereader like the Kindle and a netbook (all of which are pretty similar in functionality and price, with the e-readers trading extra functions for eye-friendliness).

paul h. said...

wow, that Sully link is one of the weirdest/saddest things I've ever read

TheRadicalModerate said...

There are really only three questions that need to be answered for any kind of gadget:

1) Can it access all the data that you need and compute what you need it to compute?

2) How well do you need to be able to see the result of the computation?

3) What style of interaction best suits your needs?

You can mix and match these in endless variety right now, but convergence is indeed coming--sort of.

We're about 2-3 years away from being able to do full bidirectional 1080p video at 3-4 watts of power, which is where you need to be to have a credible mobile device. 4G/LTE wireless will pretty much give you enough network bandwidth in about the same time frame. After that, unless you have very strange computational needs, you'll have all the compute power you need in the device you walk around with.

The next technology that causes convergence is something like wireless HDMI, which is just now becoming available. Once the chipsets for this have shown up in sufficiently low-power configurations, you can use several different screens in various form factors, all from your mobile device, based on how much resolution you need. Your TV may be on the wall, but the cable box will be in your pocket.

The problem that I don't see going away immediately is the bewildering array of user interaction modalities. Content creation vs. content browsing vs. gaming interactions vs. live conversation all have very specific input requirements, and those requirements are unlikely to be captured in a single mobile device. But they're all very low bandwidth, and it's easy to build add-on input gadgets for various applications.

Bottom line: You're only going to have one computing and network access element, and you'll carry it around. But you'll continue to have a bunch of different displays and a bunch of different input devices.

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