The PC Landscape is About to Change – Here’s Why

One of my favorite quotes about change is:
“Life is a journey, and on a journey the scenery changes.”

The technology industry is also on a journey and on that journey the scenery will change. Whether many industry insiders recognize it or not the scenery is changing and it’s happening quickly.

The line is blurring between what is a PC and what isn’t. Devices like smart phones and tablets are proving to many that computing can take place on a number of different form factors. It is important for those who watch the personal computing industry closely to realize that the landscape as we know it is about to change drastically.

Tablets Take the Computing Challenge
It all began with the iPad. In as many times, in as many years, Apple again released a product that challenged the industry and forced many companies to turn introspective and re-think their product strategy.

The iPad has done quite a bit more than just challenge the industry, it has also challenged consumers to re-consider what exactly a personal computer is and what their needs are with one. What I mean by that is that our research is indicating that many consumers bought an iPad as a partial PC replacement. Meaning they were in the market for a new PC but instead bought an iPad, relegating their old PC as a backup for when they need a mouse and keyboard experience for certain tasks. What is interesting to the last point is that once integrating an iPad consumers realize they need the PC less and less for many tasks, especially when the iPad is paired with a keyboard. There are however, a few tasks like writing long emails or using certain software that these consumer still want a traditional mouse and keyboard experience for, only their observation is that those use cases do not occupy the majority of computing time for them on a regular basis. For that they remark the iPad suffices for their needs the majority of time.

As those in the industry who make PCs are already figuring out, tablets are a viable computing platform and having a tablet strategy is essential for anyone currently competing for PC market share.

We expect quite a bit of innovation in hardware, software, and services in the category over the next few years. Tablet / PC hybrids, which is a tablet with a detachable keyboard, could be one of the most interesting form factors we will see over the next few years. This product, if done right, will give consumers a two-in-one experience where they can have a tablet when they want it and a traditional mouse and keyboard experience when they want it, all in the same product. The big key – if done right.

Anyone Can Make PCs
Tim made the observation last week in his column that a fundamental issue within the technology industry is that the bulk of consumer product companies are simply chasing Apple rather than emerging as leaders themselves.

As companies look to duplicate the iPad and the MacBook Air this point becomes increasingly clear. What this creates is the opportunity for new entrants to create new and disruptive computing products by bringing fresh thinking to the computing landscape.

Perhaps a glimpse at this reality is Vizio’s announcement that they are getting into the personal computer game. With much of the hardware design for electronics moving into the hands of the ODMs, it makes it possible for anyone with a brand, channel, and cash to start making any number of personal electronics.

This is perhaps the biggest evidence about the change we are about to see in the PC landscape. The reality that the traditional companies, who were historically the leaders in this category may get displaced by new and emerging entrants.

Simply put, those who we expected to lead the PC industry may not be those who lead in the future. The truth is innovation does not stand still and if the traditional companies don’t want to do it someone else will.

Dear Industry: The Series Introduction

Tech.pinions exists to be a valuable resource for the technology industry. Editors, authors, and contributors to Tech.pinions are all professionals from within the technology industry. Most of our writers are professional analysts whose life work and analysis is designed to be speak to and for the technology industry at large.

Our goal as a site is to be a platform where credible and respected voices can add valued perspective and expertise on all the latest happenings in the world of technology.

Thus enter the Dear Industry series. With this series our aim is to address at a high level big picture topics that need to addressed and wrestled with within the technology industry.

Topics like innovation, strategy, differentiation, competitive advantage and more are all high level topics we intend to address and share our unique perspectives on.

The aim of this series is to, at a high level, be accessible by the technology industry at large using Tech.pinions as the platform.

Like Tech.pinions itself, our goal with the Dear Industry series is that it would be a benefit for the whole of the technology industry.

Why Some Products Are Not For You

Credit - slcook52 (Sylvia) Flickr
One of my favorite commercials growing up was for a product called Bubble Tape. If you don’t know or don’t remember, Bubble Tape was six feet of bubble gum rolled up tightly to fit into a can that looked like chewing Tobacco. The gum tasted just like bubble gum but you got six feet of it. What I loved the most however was the tagline which went “six feet of Bubble tape, for you not them” said in a confident and aggressive voice.

Sometimes in debates I get with people over the whole Windows is better than OSX or Android is better than iOS or Windows phone, I just want to yell that’s because it isn’t designed for you.

The smartest companies in the world pick a segment of the market and own it, defend it and innovate for it. Perhaps the old adage proves true again that you can’t be all things to all people. Yet that is what so many tech companies try to do. They want to go after every segment of the market with a one size fits all design approach, thus spreading their products and their resources to thin.

What becomes of companies who try to go after every segment of the market is that the end up not being as good in areas where companies have focused. For example the iPad is not as good of an e-reader as the Kindle for various reasons. There are pros and cons to reading on both however for the serious reader of books, who has chosen that as the dominant use case, they will generally choose the Kindle.

There is a specific use approach to product development where a company or a technology just focuses on a limited set of use cases and makes the product the best for people to whom those use cases are valuable.

Car companies think like this. They don’t try to create a car that is all things to all people. If a car company tried to create one single car that appealed to those in the market for a truck, or a mini-van, or an economy car, or a luxury car, that car would actually be none of those things. Instead car companies develop cars for specific segments of a market.

Yet this is not how we build technology products. Currently we develop products that are all encompassing. All things to all people. That has gotten this industry pretty far, however in the future I believe technology companies who make personal technology products will need to think more like car companies.

For now however just starting by looking at the Law of Diffusion of Innovation is helpful.

What this image demonstrates is how the market segments are broken up at a high level using the law of diffusion of innovation. It also shows how large as a general percentage of the market each segment is.

The consumer of technology in each of the market segments has different expectations and uses with their technology. Therefore there is a lot of product fragmentation and differentiation opportunity in each of the market segments.

Designing a product for the innovators and early adopters is very different than designing a product for the late majority for example. Apple, I would argue, focuses on making products for the middle two markets in the chart above. The early majority and the late majority. That market consists largely those who are not tech elites but want products that “just work” and add value to their lives not make it more challenging.

Moving forward in this new world of computing where more than just the PC is an important part of the consumer ecosystem, tech companies need to understand how important it is to design for specific parts of the market rather than be all things to all people.

Can a New Approach to Wireless Beat Shannon’s Law?

For the past 60 years, electrical engineers have understood the hard limits that physics imposes on the data capacity of any channel. The law, formulated by Claude Shannon of Bell Telephone Labs, says that the data capacity, in bits per second, is a function of the bandwidth, the signal strength, and the noise in the channel.

Shannon's law formula
Shannon's Law (Wikipedia)

No one has yet found a way to break Shannon’s law, but Rearden Companies, the brainchild of Steve Perlman, who is behind the bandwidth-bending OnLive online games service, claims to have found a way to cheat significantly. A paper by Perlman and Rearden Principal Scientist Antonio Forenza, describes a technology called Distributed-Input-Distributed-Output (DIDO).

Normally, when a wireless channel, such as a connection to a Wi-Fi access point, is shared by two or more users, each user can only get a fraction of the channel’s capacity. But DIDO allows each user to communicate, in theory, up to the full Shannon limit of the channel.

The explanation for just how this works is complicated, but the technology uses array of antennas to create a non-interfering path between an access point and a user. Shannon’s law applies not to a particular piece of bandwidth but to each channel. Traditionally, we have thought of the two as the same, but DIDO spearates the concept and allows the link between the access point and each user to function as an independent channel within the dame physical bandwidth.

Normally, I am deeply skeptical about claims of fundamental scientific breakthroughs. My skepticism is mitigated by what Perlman has already accomplished with OnLive, which moves gaming data across internet connections with an efficiency that no one thought possible. Clearly, this guy knows how to move bits.

Don’t expect to see DIDO deployed anytime in the very near future. It requires significant changes to network design.. including interposing a DIDO data center between an internet source and an access point to encode data as well as sophisticated new antennas.  But it does hold real promise to to reduce the growing crunch on our wireless airspace.

Are the Best Innovations Incremental or Monumental?

Gabor George Burt an internationally recognized expert on innovation, creativity and strategy development contributed an article over at Mashable on innovation. The premise is that innovations that are more incremental improvements often times have more impact than the ones that leap forward. He states in the article that:

“Many of the most successful innovations were not brought about by outright inventions but rather by reconfiguring existing technologies. They represent a refreshing shortcut for today’s businesses.”

This is something the technology industry often has a difficult time understanding. There is a fundamental difference between invention and innovation. Bill Buxton in a great article on Innovation vs. Invention states that:

“Innovation is far more about prospecting, mining, refining and adding value than it is about pure invention. Too often, the obsession is with ‘invent- ing’ something totally unique, rather than extracting value from the creative understanding of what is already known.”

Innovation for innovations sake is a poor strategy and one too many tech companies RND labs deliver. Our firm promotes a much more holistic approach to innovation where the focused outcome of a product or technology is to be useful for the end customer. This where creating products with the customer in mind is key but often difficult.

Companies that put products on the market with no real understanding of the consumer value or pain point being solved is destined to fail in the market. This is a problem Microsoft struggles quite a bit with in my opinion.

Another great way of thinking about this is outlined by Scott Anthony, co-founder of Innosight, in his book “The Silver Lining.” He outlines in chapter two a concept that explains that consumers don’t buy products, they hire them to get jobs done. This is an excellent way to think about the value needed in a product as well as think through the task or tasks it is being hired for to get the job done.

If more companies took this approach to innovation, I believe we would see more quality products on the market more frequently. Apple is the poster child for this approach and the rewards are obvious.