Thursday, June 04, 2009

Books turning over a new leaf

Long, long ago, in the paleolithic age of computing, c. 1985, the laptop computer in the form of Data General (remember them?) One was born. The lap in question needed to be especially strong and muscular and there was always the attendant danger of going sterile from all the heat dissipated. Somewhere along the way, somebody figured out that the ideal portable computer had to be about the size of a notebook, and thus the Notebook computer was born. Fast forward to the late years of the first decade of the 21st century; it seems that human laps were rapidly weakening and computer-generated sterility was identified as a looming global disaster. So c. 2008, the push towards the 'netbook' began: a device that could be carried around and used mainly for light stuff like checking email, surfing the web, and so on. But the netbook is for sissies and girly-men, as Uber-Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger would rightly assert. I mean, would any guy who drives a Hummer carry a girly netbook? Real men have brains and would like to carry an object that recognizes this critical quality that they possess. And so we finally arrive at the threshold of the 'smartbook' which will fill the yawning gap between smartphones and netbooks. And there are any other gaps out there that need filling, like the gap between a cellphone and a pinhead, for instance, just let us know, and we'll make sure it doesn't remain unfilled.

Seriously, Palm did come out with one such in 2007, called the Palm Foleo, but the media threw up all over it; and so Palm beat a hasty retreat. Goes to show how innovations that happen before their time don't stand much of a chance of survival. It's not enough to innovate -- you need to know when to do it. Apple is reputed to play around with a variety of innovations, but only a very few make it out the door as a product. Apple has had it's share of market failures (e.g, the Cube and Newton) but it has done a pretty good job of vetting products for marketability before they are released.
So here's the thing. Some corporations would research products and technologies only if they find that there might be a market for it. This is wrong-headed, for it will rarely generate ideas that the market might never have dreamed of, but which succeed anyway. Others try to release everything they create. A proper balance is achieved by partially (and only partially0 insulating the idea folks from the marketplace; let them come up with and develop product and service ideas based on some, but not extensive input from the marketing folks. Let just a few of those innovations make it out the door to the market, and carry the ideas of the others forward until they appear to show promise in the market.
Apple's OpenDoc was a neat idea, but well before its time. Today, the web, especially Service Oriented Architecture, is an implementation of the key ideas in OpenDoc.
The key differentiator for smartbooks appears to be that they run non-MS Windows operating systems and low-power non-x86 processors (from Intel/AMD) such as ARM. They will run much longer on battery than netbooks and will be smaller and lighter than them.  Let's hear it from the man:

Glen Burchers, consumer marketing director at Freescale Semiconductor, says those features could include all-day battery life, instant-on capability and "persistent connectivity," and specs such as an ARM-based chip core, a Linux OS version like Google's Android, and, most importantly to consumers, a price point significantly lower than today's netbooks.
"We fully expect $199 devices with 8.9-inch screens, Wi-Fi, full-sized keyboard, 8-hour battery life, 512MB of RAM and 4 to 8GB of [solid-state] storage by the end of the year," Burchers said.
So how many devices will the average person -- girly-man or not -- need to carry? You'll have to choose among:
  1. Mobile phone
  2. Palm/Windows CE-type Organizer (rendered obsolete by smartphone)
  3. Smartbook
  4. Netbook
  5. Notebook/Laptop
  6. GPS
  7. Camera
  8. Video camcorder
  9. Personal Media Player (MP3, etc.)
  10. Game player
The average person will likely tolerate 2, or at most, three devices: one very small, and the other small. Some product categories are likely to rapidly disappear, or be reduced to a tiny niche, as their features are integrated into a single device. As it is, at least at the consumer level, the following technology convergences have already occurred or occurring;
Mobile Phone + Organizer
Camera + Camcorder
Mobile Phone/Organizer + Camera/Camcorder
GPS + Mobile Phone/Organizer/Camera/Camcorder
PMP + Game Player
Mobile Phone/Etc + PMP + Game Player
Only one among Smartbook/Netbook will survive. The role of the Notebook will be reduced to that of a niche-player.
Whether or not all this will dampen innovation remains to be seen. It probably will dampen innovation in some ways and encourage innovation in other ways -- the ones who benefit will speak out the loudest and their voices will eventually drown out the voices of the naysayers, the ones who lose out.
But this is the way innovation works, like the way Darwin saw it: the fittest survive. And the fittest are not, as the term seems to erroneously imply, the strongest, the best, and so on; the fittest are the ones that are able to find a niche into which they can fit: a niche that will provide them sustenance. Hence, cockroaches, however disgusting they might feel to us, have survived for hundreds of millions of years but large reptiles and mammals face extinction much sooner.
The IBM-style Personal Computer might be termed the cockroach of the digital landscape for its ability to mutate and fill whatever niches that emerged even while mightier machines crumbled to dust. Let's see what sort of digitial cockroach emerges in the mobile computing space.

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