A lot of the iPad analysis I’ve seen in recent weeks fixates on where it fits in our current world: where, or how, it inserts itself as a new type of connected device between a laptop and a smartphone. Playing with Yankee Group’s unit, which so far on balance I do love, I get the question. Today I’m fumbling like an arthritic grandmother just to figure out how to modify a Powerpoint deck we loaded onto it, so that I can use it to drive a projector for a speech in a few hours. Right now I’d give up two fingers for a real #*&@ keyboard on the thing. Ultimately, I’d like to figure out if and how I can leave my laptop behind on more roadtrips, but I definitely don’t have that nailed yet.
What does the recent debut of the iPad mean for dedicated e-readers as a category, and the potential proliferation of more kinds of connected devices? Last week in California I asked Phil Lubell, Sony Electronics VP for Digital Reading, how the Sony Daily Reader has been doing since its debut last fall. “The holiday season was a great breakout for the product category in general, and Sony’s e-readers played a big role in that. We saw sales volumes about four times as high as the same period in 2008,” he said.
Is he worried about the iPad’s impact on his opportunity to sell more e-readers? Not in public, at least: “More players in an early market is a good thing. And the biggest obstacle to more sales isn’t competition — it’s content. Availability of content is the most compelling factor in buying one of these devices. The device plays just a part in the overall experience.”
What’s the Sony party line on the multi-media and app-happy iPad versus e-readers, intended to do one thing reasonably well? “You could think of the iPad as the Swiss Army knife of these devices. But we know from some users that they want a single-purpose device. They want these things so they can escape from a lot of other things in their lives for a time. They say, ‘I like how I can’t do anything but read on my e-reader.’ ” Yes, but… the nearest recent model for how that will play out might be the new role of digital cameras, in a world where most consumers have a decent camera function on their mobile phone. Some of us, for many instances, will still prefer a dedicated device for the task. Overall the total market for single-purpose devices will be real — but diminished.
On the same trip I met with the always thoughtful Steve Tomlin, founder and CEO of chumby industries*. What’s new at chumby? Actually, what’s new with chumby is what’s new with Sony — the Sony Dash, just released this week. The Dash uses chumby’s media streaming capabilities to offer functionality similar to the chumby, but in a slightly larger form factor with a gorgeous screen big enough to show more than one widget at a time. And I want one. See a video about it on the Sony site here.
What was chumby’s role in the Sony product? “We worked with Sony in the conception of the Dash, as well as the software design and execution. Specifically, chumby industries provided our Flash-based presentation layer for content, along with access to a set of chumby industries’ applications. And we ported to the Dash of a number of other parts of the overall chumby technology platform,” Steve explained.
“The question I ask about things like the iPad is, ‘What is this device to me when I’m not using it?’”, he continued. The iPad is an awesome digital picture frame in passive mode… but I take his point; it could do more, which is where he sees opportunity. “I think the iPad has awakened CE manufacturers, but just a bit. Now there’s a lot of feverish thinking about Android tablets. They’re still in pretty narrow silos.”
And there, precisely, is my big bitch about the beginnings of the connected device explosion — which we predicted in our book ANYWHERE. We appear to be falling victim as an industry to interpolation in our product thinking. And it’s dangerously myopic — both for consumers who’ll struggle to figure out where more of these things fit in their lives, and for the manufacturers, who risk scarce capital on new products with razor-thin margins and fleeting life cycles.
Interpolation means defining a new point somewhere on a line between two endpoints. In the case of connected consumer electronics, product development seems to be following a path defined by this linear interpolation challenge: With the TV at one end of a product spectrum, and the mobile phone at the other end, what are the intermediate points along that line that represent distinct mass-market connected screen product opportunities? The netbook? The tablet? The dedicated e-reader? The ‘personal internet viewer’? Exactly how many viable points can the industry cram onto that line?
That might be one way to ideate new products, but it ain’t the only way. And if we depend on just that approach, we’ll all miss out. Why? Step back and think about time-telling — the technology for which has become as widespread as connected computing technology will soon be. With the town clock tower at one end, and the wristwatch at the other, what are the intermediate points along that line that represent valid mass-market time-telling products? You can easily identify actual product categories that appeared along that spectrum: we created grandfather clocks, mantel clocks, alarm clocks, all of which might suggest that an “interpolation theory” about product conceptualization can fit the facts.
But what that theory doesn’t account for in the case of time-telling are all the places where time-telling has been added to other products and activities: coffee pots, automobile dashboards, and of course mobile phones… where it is now so central to those devices that my daughter and most of her cohort may never regularly wear a wristwatch, and hotels can stop putting alarm clocks by our beds. In other words, diminishing the opportunity for a single-purpose time-telling device.
If time-telling tech product guys had maintained such a myopic view of their world — wherein everything they made or helped to make had to look, ultimately, like a clock at its core — these would have been missed opportunities in any thought process that capped creation at either end of some two-dimensional line.
Instead, diffusion might be the image we need to imagine the true potential breadth of connected consumer electronics products. Pairing the core concept of connectivity with well-known current-day things in our lives as a series of thought experiments might help us define entire new product categories. We could call this approach diffusion pairing.
What do you get when you combine picture-taking with connectivity? A camera that automatically uploads photos to the web. What do you get when you combine microwaving with connectivity? A microwave that reads the UPC tag on packaged foods to ask the network how long to cook them. Presto, a new model of microwave.
No guarantees that these new features, if attractive to consumers, won’t someday become table-stakes, as in my search recently for a new coffee pot. All the candidates came with the nifty timer function to get my java going before I get up in the morning.
But I hope consumer electronics firms leave the linear lemming thinking behind and begin thinking omnidirectionally.
*A note about chumby: My public enthusiasm about the innovative chumby has led to a recurring question which I’ll answer here as well: I have no commercial stake whatsoever in that firm’s success.