Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Where We Could Really Use the "Next Steve Jobs"

A lot of people focus on the smartphone market, and complain with each new Apple product that... Steve Jobs would have done something different, or better, or both. Steve Jobs brought something unusual to Apple, specifically a willingness to make huge gambles on theoretical technology, and to release products that could turn out to be failures. Apple seems to have become exceedingly cautious, but I'm not sure that is so much the result of a change in the company's philosophy as it is a change in consumer expectations. The iPhone 4 antenna issue, and the Apple Maps brouhaha, suggest that consumers want nothing less than perfect and, rather than launching risky products that might inspire a mixed reaction or turn out to be the next Newton (or Zune), caution has spread across the industry.

The real story behind the focus on portable electronics is not so much that a life-changing innovation is just around the corner. It's much more that there is profit in the upper end of the market, the mass market having already been commoditized. Smartphone advances reflect the importance of competition as, even though Apple sees the rise and fall of Nokia as a cautionary tale, history suggests that product development in a commoditized market tends to be slow. Most companies see little to no point in spending hundreds of millions of dollars to marginally improve a product that will likely sell at the same price point as before. That's the sort of context in which a short-sighted CEO of a company like Hewlett-Packard might decide that it no longer makes sense to fund research that is not directly aimed at turning a profit, or why a similarly short-sighted company's products might go from excellent to "good enough" in order to increase margins by decreasing production costs. (Am I talking about the same company?)

One might argue that televisions have seen marked advances in technology despite being a largely commoditized market, but that has been driven in no small part by the introduction of HDTV and the money poured into the development of new displays for computer users and commercial settings. Even in that context, major players like Panasonic have a very difficult time turning a profit, and the pool of companies that produce television displays and sets is not expanding.

One area that has seen a surprising lack of innovation is the desktop computer market. That's in part because it's a tough nut to crack - computers do pretty much what we want them to do, there are no obvious ways to dramatically improve the user interface, and the technologies for interacting with computers other than through a mouse and keyboard tend to focus on niche users or turn out to be largely impractical. It may be that one day we'll have displays and "no touch" gesture controls as shown in the film, "Minority Report", but that's not on the horizon. Basically, the desktop computer market seems a lot like the television market. To the extent that incremental improvements are seen, they're in no small part the result of R&D in the mobile marketplace. The biggest "innovation" we've seen in a desktop operating system was Microsoft's annoying, clumsy interference with the user experience by putting a "smart tile" display between the computer user and the desktop - that is, they tried to make the desktop experience more like mobile, never mind whether that makes sense. Apple has made similar, albeit less in-your-face changes to its desktop operating system, with its Launchpad and App store, but they're really not part of the ordinary desktop experience.

Somebody commented to me recently that Apple seemed to be "giving up" on the competition for desktop computers. I responded that they're chasing money and market share, and that right now they can find both in the mobile space while there is little incentive to try to claw out a greater market share in the desktop market. The cost of significantly expanding their desktop presence would be significant, and there's really not much money to be made in that market. Were Apple to start producing $300 - $600 portable computers it might find a market, but it would have to make the quality cuts that are readily apparent in computers in that price range, potentially costing it brand loyalty over the long run in the same manner that the low quality Apple products of the Sculley era damaged Apple's reputation and competitiveness. Why mass produce low-cost computers that have to be sold at tiny margins and that would likely have an impaired user experience, when you can continue to sell $1000+ computers that people enjoy using, and sell millions of highly profitable iPads to the sub-$1,000 market?

Really, though, the desktop industry needs to be woken from its complacency, much in the manner that Google and Apple rebooted then-stagnant browser development with Chrome and Safari. The problem being, you either need a company that sees a long-term gain in developing new technology at a significant short-term cost, the way Xerox PARC laid the foundation for the computer mouse and windows-driven displays, or because they don't want to be indentured to a competitor's product. And if you take the HP Labs / Xerox PARC approach, you also need a visionary who can see how a new idea can be improved and put into widespread use - after all it was Apple, not Xerox, that turned the mouse and menu/windows-driven interface from an impractical lab-based demo to the desktop standard.

The manner in which the world, and Apple, has changed is perhaps best illustrated by today's quiet announcement that the iMac has been updated. You can go to the Apple Store and buy one today - but the new version isn't even flagged as "new". A secondary illustration comes from the Mac Pro, the high-end computer Apple develops for the professional market, which is soon to be released in an innovative new case. But that's innovation in the same sense as the Mac Mini was an innovation - great design and packaging, but nothing you couldn't have accomplished in a traditional mini tower case. Apple did promote the redesigned Mac Pro, some months back, but when will it actually come to market? Later this year. There's no sense of urgency, as there is in the highly competitive mobile marketplace.

An argument can be made that when a technology reaches a certain point of maturity, all new developments will be incremental. Perhaps the keyboard and mouse-driven desktop computer are pretty much it - and unless the entire concept is reinvented (much as the iPhone reinvented the smartphone market) this is it. People seem disappointed when the new "state of the art" smartphone looks like the old one - as if there's a great deal you can do to differentiate the hardware of a typical smartphone in ways that are obvious or exciting. Even in that market, unless a new, disruptive technology comes along the biggest future changes will come through software. In fifteen years, today's typical smartphone and tablet apps are likely to look about as sophisticated as Pong. But still, it would be nice to have a sense that somebody out there - somebody positioned to disrupt the market - was looking at "impractical, unworkable" new ideas from a different angle, and asking, "What if...."

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