As the idiotic rumor mill about a product that does not exist continues and probably increases until the middle of this week, I thought that it would be productive to talk about what we need, as of today, from a technological point of view.
We already know that the apple tablet will save the media world (yeah, right), that Google (with Android in the USA) and Nokia (with Ovi Maps in the rest of the world) will completely reshape the GPS-navigation market. But those are things that we, honestly, don’t need.
Think about it. What are the most common problems we face in the technological/connected electronic device world today?
The first hurdle: Price
One of the problems we face is price. Thanks to the OLPC now we have netbooks. Maybe our collective memories are too short to remember, but it was the OLPC foundation with AMD that revolutionized the connected laptop business. Were it not for that amazing device we would still be lugging around huge laptops with far more processing power than we need. So, thanks OLPC and AMD for making our technological world better. If you add to that the fact that the OLPC project brings technology to a large set of the world’s population that did not previously have access to it it becomes a no-brainer that the OLPC project is changing the world far more than is the interest of the companies we so often tout as “innovative” and “game changing”.
The second hurdle: connectivity
Most of the devices we have today suffer from a frustrating lack of connectivity. If you live outside the relatively well covered north and central Europe or major North America cities, you know how bad things can get.
The promise of 3G is still far from being common place. GPRS (or 2G) connectivity is more wide-spread but has a bandwidth that would make the modems of the 90’s look speedy in comparison. However, the largest problem of all is to have connectivity at all. Most of the world is dark, no connectivity fast or slow. ALso, most of the devices out there lack basic connectivity outside our homes. Laptops, for example, become expensive bricks as soon as you step outside your favorite coffee shop.
Any device or ecosystem that revolutionizes our world needs to solve this problem.
The third hurdle: The price of connectivity
In this realm there is already some movement. The Kindle from Amazon is arguably the most widely know example of innovation in this area with the price of connectivity being covered by the purchase price, but there are probably already more Nokia phones implementing this model today then there are Kindle devices (there’s no way to know, Amazon does not publish the numbers). Nokia’s Comes With Music (CWM) phones include internet connectivity in their purchase price or monthly fee.
This innovation in the model for buying connectivity has the potential to exponentially grow the number of always-connected mobile devices to the point where netbooks and laptops become a connectivity niche. Smart cellular operators will want to jump on this bandwagon and create an early lead in developing and profiting from this business model.
However the price of connectivity-problem is far from being solved for the average consumer. The examples above are but a drop of rain in the desert. A lot more is needed if our lives are to be significantly improved.
Open standards and the cost of doing business
I could write a lot about this, but this article alone does a great job of describing why closed standards have the potential to “kill” innovation and destroy the web as we know it today.
The gist of the argument is: closed standards will be used to extort money from content creators and providers. In turn this means that new content creation and distribution is severely hampered to the point that it loses value and stops being useful let alone revolutionary.
Usability: the key to mass market products
Usable products are the basis for any mass market product. This should come as no surprise. The fact that most people know how to operate a mobile phone but need to call support when they have PC-problems will make sure simpler products win over the long term. After all, device manufacturers and distributors want to spend money in sales and R&D, not support. Any product or service that aims to change our lives will have to be as simple to use (if not simpler) than a mobile phone.
However, usability as such will become an enabler, a stepping stone to the success of products. It is very likely that as soon as most companies catch up on this front (like HTC, Samsung and LG are already doing and Intel is exploring with Moblin) usability alone will stop being a competitive advantage (and apple knows that).
Mobile connectivity for the masses, the next frontier
One hidden fact in all discussions of “tech revolutions” is that the major revolution that we have seen and are still witnessing is the extent to which mobile access will become the norm. According to some sources Mobile Internet access is already larger than desktop/laptop internet access. This trend is likely to continue as internet access becomes more common in mobile devices; and it should be no surprise because there are already more than 4 billion mobile phone users. Many more than PC users (around 1 billion).
Once the internet starts to be accessible from these mobile phones (and it is already in many of the them today), it is easy to see that the next frontier for “revolutionary tech devices” is the mobile phone market. This is the *real* mass market.
Open Internet is the future, closed formats destroy value
Another revolution factor for the connected world is the format of information. Here the open source world has led the way and is likely to continue to do so. Internet Explorer showed us how dangerous the closed formats can be, to the point that people lose access to valuable data (online banks that support only ie, anyone?) I expect that the open source movement will continue to lead here. One only needs to look at the mobile OS landscape to see how the Open Source model has the potential to change the ecosystem. Today, all major mobile OS are open source to some extent. This is no accident, DRM in the 90’s proved that closed formats delay adoption of technology and build unacceptable barriers to those people that we should support: the consumers.
The inconvenient truth for information oligopolies is this: you will not be able to control the format of information. You don’t need to take my word for it, just look around. Twitter is revolutionizing the access to information from the time perspective. Google is doing it from the extensiveness perspective (with their Google news and Search products), but many others are also doing the same: Blogs, aggregators, curators (like aggregators, but with brains). The list goes on.
The New York Times or Frankfurter Allgemeine still have a place in the world after the connectivity revolution, but they don’t own the format of information anymore. Amazon is already considering dropping DRM on the Kindle and others will follow. Information wants to be free and any business model that closes/denies access to information is bound to disappear sooner or later. Just see what happened to music and news.
The catch here is: access to information is not the value. It is what you do with that information that will make or break your business. Here, Google has a large lead, but others are not sleeping…
Here are but a few aspects that a new “device or ecosystem” needs to solve to claim to be revolutionary. There is far too much speculation about how this or that device is or will be revolutionary. The point is, that you can win at any of these items but completely fail at creating lasting value.
Companies that are in this for the long term will need to consistently tackle most (if not all) of these issues and constantly improve.
Having written this, I hope as many companies as possible try to be revolutionary. It is for our benefit.
While researching and writing this post I came up with other key aspects that did not make the final cut. I’d like to highlight only one for which I could not add much value both because of time and because I don’t know enough about it: The Environment.
Any mass market product that does not take Ecological Sustainability as a key aspect of it’s ecosystem will be doomed sooner or later. Consumers are smart, it does not take too long before they acknowledge what is really relevant for them as a group and destroying natural resources will be a major issue for any consumer product. In some countries it is already.