There is a storm coming.
I realized this as I listed in Buzz Out Loud, a podcast at CNET. Buzz Out Loud comes out every day Monday to Friday and focuses on the latest tech news. Under this broad drapery, however, there is a notable preference towards “gadgets” – phones, MP3 players, that sort of thing. And that’s cool. In fact that is why I listen to Buzz Out Loud. I’m not really a gadget guy, but only because I really can’t convince myself to sign up on a data plan just so I can own an iPhone and check my Facebook account from anywhere I please.
There was a recent conversation, however, that really caught my ear. That conversation revolved around OS X and the belief of the Buzz Out Loud crew that OS X is, essentially, doomed. They believe that iOS, the new name for the operating system used on the iPad and iPhone, will eventually be Apple’s only operating system, replacing OS X on Mac systems.
I think that they are wrong for a number of reasons. I won’t go into them all, but will only mention the biggest – homogenization of operating systems among devices is a false prophet. While I agree that using the same operating system on all a company’s devices would improve compatibility and reduce costs, I think that the cost of those benefits would be greater than consumers are willing to accept. You simply can not use the same operating system on a phone as you use on a computer – or rather, if you do use the same operating system it would have to be so throughly modified that the advantage of using the same OS among different devices would be lost.
This point is tangential, however, to what I think is more interesting – the storm I mentioned. A decade ago the major division between technology consumers was the division between those who cared about technology and those who didn’t. As technology becomes more common that conflict is shifting to a division between those who see technology as a vehicle for consumption and those who see technology as a vehicle for creation. This is a battle between those who love gadgets and those who love computers. Those on the gadget side have wet dreams about the day their computer will operate like a super-advanced iPhone, while those on the computer side look at gadgets and dream of the day when they’ll be able to do everything a computer can do.
Both sides of this fissure would be better of if they could stop seeing the equation as binary. There is room for both, and it is quite clear where each camp has its strengths. Android phones and the iPad offer brilliant examples of this. Android phones are example of a phone that is trying to act more like a computer, offering a more open-ended operating system and hardware. While it is somewhat competitive, it really falters in the face of Apple’s iPhone, which offers a smoother and less confusing experience. On the other hand, Apple’s iPad clearly fails as a computer replacement. The operating system is too limited and even the device’s form factor just isn’t conducive to the kind of work you can accomplish with a true laptop or desktop.
If there is anything the laptop market has taught me, however, it is that no one is ever happy to settle for what they’ve got (except Apple. Maybe). The siren call of volume drivers all businesses that must answer to shareholders. Computer businesses want nothing more than to get into the mobile phone business – and phone companies would like to get into the tablet and laptop business. Neither (again, except Apple) seems to be having huge success, and I think until the division between gadgets and computers is acknowledged and accepted we will continue to see some unimpressive device.
That isn’t to say that no one will ever buy them. But saying a product is justified because people buy it is a fallacy. Bringing products to market requires money and time, so the question is not ”did this product sell?” but rather “was the money we spent on this project better spent than if it had been used on a different project?”
My friends, we’re entering strange times. The tech community isn’t one big happy family. There is much misunderstanding between gadgeteers and PC freaks, and this conflict will drive a slew of mostly failed experiments over the next decade.