iDevices II : Rapid Evolution

The first post on iDevices argued that the currently breaking wave of new iPhones, smartphones, iPads and tablets represent a major new face to personal computing. The common denominator among these iDevices is high portability, Web and WiFi connections, touch+gesture powered ease of operations, plus small but dense screens that are visible in most lighting conditions. But other characteristics distinguish these gadgets. Their OS are major rewrites with greater security, reliability and speed of operation. They are packed with sensors, camera, and audio devices that compliment the wide array of media supported. They have public APIs that allow 3rd party developers to write now hundreds of thousands of apps that allow users to customize their iDevice exactly the way they want.

But this customization works the other way too. 3rd party vendors can hop aboard any  iDevice [note this could be Apple but also Google Android, HP webOS, RIM Blackberry OS, etc]  they choose  by simply using their APIs in developing an app for that iDevice. The 3rd party can then  tie their specialized tool, say a geodometer for survey work,by means of the selected  iDevice API and then have a well know and often used interface as a value add for their equipment. This could also true of PCs and laptops but they are not nearly as light, portable nor have full working day battery life plus touch and tap interfaces to match iDevices.

Finally, what makes iDevices a new category of PC  is the various trade-offs engendered in their design. These trade-offs  include  weight+size [smaller screens than PCs, no big hard drive or GPU, etc], no connectors needed [neither mouse nor keyboard required and few ports for cable connectors relative to PCs and laptops] and battery life of at least 7 hours [no use of high speed dual core CPUs or GPUs or battery guzzling hard disks]These design patterns  bring unique functionality to iDevices which  distinguish them as  a new type in Personal Computing.

True by adding a docking station with keyboard, mouse, and external hard drive, an iDevice becomes an average laptop but with touch and tap easy use. But free an iDevice of these constraints and it becomes a highly portable remote display and controller connected not just to the Web but likely hundreds if not thousands of tools and gadgets by WiFI, HDMI, etc.  This is why any company  in Personal Computing better also be into iDevices.

The final distinguishing characteristic of iDevices is their rapid evolution. True, iDevices were preceded by PDAs – Personal Digital Assistants like the Palm Pilot, Apple Newton, and Windows Mobile of 10-13 years ago. These devices pioneered the ideas of light weight, high portability, longer battery life, and an array of  built-in apps to choose from. However, lead by Apple with its iPod, iPhone and now iPad the winning trade-offs and design characteristics of iDevices have  rapidly evolved in the past 3-4 years.

The rise of iDevices follows from the 80-20 rule.

80% of users employ only 20% or less of their PC’s functionality. Think of iDevices as computing that matches a big chunk of those 80% of users. How?? By catering to their media, display and messaging needs. These users are looking for access to computing power around their  voice and text messaging ; music and images; games and video; and finally a panoply of web access services. Note that all of these uses tend to be Low I, High O => Low  Input/High Output in  device activities. In contrast, many important activities on the PC are the exact opposite – comparatively high input to lower output ratios.

iPod delivered the music and images first and best. Then iPhone delivered voice and text messaging plus Web services with all that iPod could do yet still in a handy portable fashion and extended touch screen ease of use.  Many of the  iPhone ease of use features  with touch + gestures  were added to the IPod Touch. And soon everyone in the smartphone and tablet market did so or at least intended to do so.  But most important of all iPhone added all day battery service and not thousands but hundreds of thousands of apps for customizing what “your” iPhone could do.

The final winning touch has been that  the iPad  deliberately eschewed any keyboard, mouse or tethering connectors – to deliver a highly portable viewing device suitable for Web pages, movies, games and email/Web connections. Yes, iPad is emphatically not just a PC [although with a docking station it can quickly become one]. iPad is important for what it does not have:

1)lets repeat – no keyboard, no mouse, no tethering connectors to tie it down;
2)no 4 hour or less battery life – with 7-9 hours meeting most workday needs;
3)no great weight – light and highly portable;
4)no problems reading the screen in many lighting conditions – an eReader with color;
5)no great slowdowns in response time – with a native 1GHz CPU delivering consistent speed;
6)no hesitation in how it works – as the simplicity of touch and gestures prevail;
7)no throwback OS – to encumber with old install, response time, and security problems;
8)no overwhelming size or added plugins to discourage taking an iDevice anywhere.

Following in the style of Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, the common appeal of these iDevices for many users are: Mobility, Mobility, Mobility; Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity; Security, Security, Security; and Profitability, Profitability, Profitability. Lets look in detail at each factor in turn.

Mobility

The attraction of iDevices is that they are PDA-Personal Digital Assistants that are now touch+gesture easier to use and with about 200,000++ more apps and ways for users to customize to their precise needs and hearts content, whichever comes first. Better, the price and task of downloading and installing the exact app a user wants is a lot cheaper, easier and faster than most corresponding software buys and installs.

But the essential here is that iDevices are mobile++. This means light in weight, fit in a shirt pocket and/or backpack and thus can be easily carried to class or work. Second, their battery life is 7-10 hours or more – equal to a working day and much better than most PC laptops and even many netbooks. Third, iDevices allow users to carry their phone/data connection with them wherever they go. So can PC  laptops but not for a full day nor with such mobility and high touch simplicity[see below] as iDevices.

Do not dismiss the attraction of highly portable and connected. High mobility has arrived at the same time as highly connected has become so attractive -games, geolocation, social media, rich or swift[text] messaging and web browsing are iDevice norms. Add to that the advantage of having your chosen data profile about yourself, your location, plus conditions and events in your surrounding environ available – and suddenly apps can deliver innovative value to you wherever you. Query and find the nearest restaurants. Check the route to the plaza and restaurant.  And check the  balance in your chequing account to make sure you can cover the bill.

PC laptops or netbooks barely serve these  connected query needs. They don’t have the battery life or convenient portability. But most telling of all, laptops lack the onboard  sensors, touch sensitivity and app programs of iDevices that provide so many value add services.  The parade of iDevices  has been lead by Apple but Google with Android is close behind . And just behind again is a gaggle of competitors from RIM through Dell and HP to Intel/Nokia and  a slew of East Asian players like Acer, Asus, HTC, Samsung, etc.

Simplicity

Touch+gestures deliver a new level of simplicity and ease of use to computing. A  friend, a PC phobe, loves her iPhone. As she says – “even my parents borrow and use my iPhone”. iDevices have brought, by means of no keyboard and no mouse, simplicity and ease of operation back to computing. True, there is a trade-off  with iDevices – with only a software keyboard, large amounts of text input can be a tedious task. But there is another key factor in iDevices favor.

Smartphones and tablets have allowed software developers to rethink program design .Limits of screen size and computing power plus demands for game-like quickness of operation have meant a return to simplicity and ease of operation. In contrast, these GUI virtues have been slowly but surely drained from PCs – be they Linux, Macs or Windows powered. Just ask anyone who has to use word processing, spreadsheet, or report writing programs in any of those OS.  PCs have become so  hard to learn or to remember how to use. The reverse 80-20 rule applies- 80% or more of users know only about 20% or less of a program’s commands and functions. However, it is important to note that touch screen + gestures can be implemented on both PCs and notebooks thus potentially neutralizing one key iDevice advantage.

Another key is that simplicity of installation and use coupled with lite, compact and easily accessed apps make these devices very attractive. iDevices means  having a self-customized Swiss Army knife/electronic gadgeteer that is distinctively setup for personal use.  iDevices are true  Digital Assistants which  allow users to communicate  and interact with friends and business colleagues  in many novel ways.

Security

“You have got to be kidding!” – No, security is better on iDevices for 3 reasons. First, the OS on most popular iDevices are brand new so the hackers don’t have a huge kitty of zero day virus  and repertoire of hacks available to crack into the OS. Second, the iDevice vendors have deliberately targeted their OS to be highly secure. One of the advantages of Google’s Android and Chrome OS operating systems is that they have been built using the Linux kernel – still one of the safest OS around. In addition, Google is putting extra effort into securing operations on these two OS. But that is true of all the vendors: Apple iOS4, HP’s webOS, Intel+Nokia’s Meego, Microsoft’s Phone 7, and RIM’s Blackberry OS.  All are new OS so they have no excuse for fumbling security – they know the problems that exist and have a lot of software defenses to secure their OS operations. What will be interesting to see is which OS performs the best after the first onslaught of iDevice hack and virus attacks.

But the third reason for iDevice’s greater security is that both users and companies have been chastised. No more short cuts by users in providing for their own security. For example, as more financial transactions get done online and through iDevices, financial institutions are only allowing transactions if basic security protocols have been observed. Also there are more and easier to use apps to verify that your iDevices are properly locked down. This more vigilant security will become more important as mobile phones are already being used in parts of Africa and Asia as major payment devices in lieu of cash or credit cards.

Profitability

Consumers love iDevices because they cater to their needs by being app-packed and customizable; hence iDevices are very profitable to most consumers. No need to buy a cellphone and a game console and a media player and an eBook reader- just get a Google Android like Droid X. And if you later decide you need GPS locator there is likely an app for that from Apple and Google and pretty soon RIM, HP and Microsoft too. Consumers love the profitable dollar savings engendered by iDevices with the bonus that they are much easier to use than many PCs.

Telephone company’s love iDevices because they, even with $150-300 rebates, recoup the dollars invested with added services and monthly data plans. Yes,  the days of unlimited data plans are rapidly coming to a close. The  day of reckoning is justified by  the 10-90% rule which Telecoms believe  has to be broken  – that is a very small set of users [around 10%] eat up 90% of iDevice bandwidth on their unlimited monthly usage plans. And with AT&T in the lead that new direction has been reached. This will allow telephone network providers to price on usage and recover bandwidth and revenues lost to the download hogs. Since Takethe5th is a download hog, one can be assured there are some unhappy users.

Small to medium size developers love iDevices because they are back into  money-making for their software.  PC vendors like Apple, Microsoft, and yes even Open Source had either completely cut them off from traditional  markets or  had squeezed their revenues down to a trickle. With iDevices the top level prices are not huge; but the volumes in millions of units can certainly make up the difference.

Finally, gadget makers including Apple, HTC, Acer, etc love iDevices. Its a huge, growing, and still very profitable market. Its not controlled by Microsoft; but Apple is doing its utmost to recreate that monopoly situation on iDevices. Google, RIM, Nokia/Intel and HP are trying to avoid that no-Win situation again. But right now iDevices means profitable growth for those ready to deliver nifty light touch devices  – and  preferably by Christmas 2010.

Why Light Touch  Has Won a Huge Market

One can cite the above 4 reasons and a few more rationales as to why light and touch+gesture savvy  iDevices took off. Here are some factors in the surrounding IT and personal usage industry that helped to propel iDevices to the forefront. Think of these as some necessary pre-conditions   for iDevices to take-off.

PDAs and iPods first had to pioneer with tiny apps, high mobility, and long battery life – the success here confirmed that there was a big market for customizable mobiles.

CPUs with high GHz, low cost, and low power consumption had to become available – hedging its bets even Intel supplied Atoms and other micro CPUs.

Flash memory had to become low cost,  more reliable and higher capacity – and it did.

3G and WiFi had to  deliver – and they do with enough network capacity to handle calls, simple videos, and reasonable email and web browsing.

Vista had to fail badly sewing discord into the Windows brand and monopoly – It is clear that  Vista failed for any number of reasons but most critically it was harder to use, more expensive and slower than its predecessor, Windows XP. Also for many users older software, games and peripherals that worked in Windows XP did not for Vista. Finally, before fixing Vista Microsoft took Windows XP forcibly off the consumer preloaded PC market- users had to pay more for a downgrade to Windows XP and do the re-install on their own. This drastically changed the consumer mindshare against Microsoft – they were perceived as being part of the problem in getting computing and PCs working effectively for many consumers.

Microsoft had to fumble tablets – despite having almost free reign for 10 years in tablets and Pen OS, Microsoft and partners failed to deliver a compelling tablet in either the consumer or corporate PC marketplace. Admittedly this was a difficult task because it required moving off the Windows suite spot. However, this failure confirmed for many users that they would have to look elsewhere for device innovation to meet their needs.

Creation and/or Development had to take a back seat – many PCs are powered as if everybody was a super-user or core developer or high paid graphic designer that needs all the  screen area , computing power, peripheral connections possible. Laptops have become mini software development or video/media creation machines or huge 3D game enthusiast platforms. This is maybe 20-35% of the total consumer PC market. But for many users all they want is email, web browser, word processing, picture and video taking, Picasa-like image processor for those images, some simple games and maybe 3-5 other simple specialty apps a few of which they already get on the Web. What they would prefer is all this accessible  in one device  –  voice, image, video recorder operations and then the ability to store and forward those media  objects with ease, simplicity and speed.

One can see the shifts in emphasis enabled by iDevices in their rapid evolution – back to ease of use, customer primacy, better security, light weight and handy mobility, etc. But there are new features and functionality as geo-location, motion sensors, and media devices like a video+still camera are brought on board. Takethe5th hates software installs and updates. They can be long and tedious, require a reboot, or require a redo because of faulty configuration or shades of .DLL Hell. Then the ever present updaters constantly resident, taking up memory space and CPU cycles, and constantly nagging you to Update Now! So far many iDevices have gotten this rite right. But Takethe5th is from Missouri – show me this kindness for many more years.

Summary

The last observation is key to understanding iDevices. They have and are still evolving very rapidly. The demands of quarterly profitability may change the vendors “consumers first” tune [Apple appears to be doing that with the iPhone 4 antenna problem]. Finally, there is an absolute wave of new products coming to market in the next half year. The last installment on iDevices will examine these new trends plus the winners and losers as iDevices establish their position in the Personal Computing market.