We talk about the one-console future of phones and what will happen to the mobile computing space once system specs all converge.
The Cult of Apple
Last week, and this inevitably happens from time to time in the group of friends I have, we started talking about Android and iOS and what makes one superior to the other. The real thing that my friend wanted to know was “why do people get so over-excited for iOS products? Where’s the appeal for someone like me who’s an Android user?" And after debating back and forth for an hour or two, we finally came to the conclusion that iOS users are in a sort of “Cult of Apple" if you will, and Android power users are still stuck in the days of the old PC hardware wars, missing out on the bigger picture. What really struck a chord with me in this entire conversation was when we got to talking about what makes the two platforms different, only to realize that they have a lot more in common than we thought.
In evolutionary biology, there’s a well-known idea called convergent evolution. This type of evolution suggests that even species that evolve separately can evolve the exact same trait as a means of survival. For instance, the two plants can have a converged body form from an evolutionary standpoint. This idea is permeating through the mobile computing space like wildfire. Different camps, different companies, people who have little to no link between each other are following very similar blueprints to arrive at the same “nouveau" concept of a smartphone. Much in the same way butterflies (like the one pictured) can mimick one another's color patterns to indicate a clear signal to predators, phones and tablets too are mimicking one another in order to signal to consumers "buy me!"
To give a quick example, all smartphones employ some sort of app ecosystem. Why is this? There’s a decent chance that this has to do with Apple’s initial investment in the App Store and rival companies seeing them make billions of dollars from it. Unfortunately, this idea of “let’s not reinvent the wheel unless it’s broken" is leading phones to some sort of convergence point in the near future. The real question we should be asking is: when phones reach some sort of small apex of computational power (like PCs currently have), how will they be marketed to the lay person?
The point I suppose I’m trying to get at is that the war over apps has only just begun. When phones reach this convergence point sometime not too far from now, the apps will become the thing that matters most.to the consumer. When all phones are dual-core or maybe even quad-core, have 1+ GB of RAM, and enough solid-state storage to make PCs jealous, the mobile space is going to see a radical change, something probably similar to what happened to laptops and desktop PCs in the years following the boom of innovation in that field.
The Fickle Consumer
When this happens, it’ll separate the boys from the men in the sense that companies that are unprepared will suddenly see their sales tank and their investments lose money faster than they can click the “sell" button on their trading website. Fundamentally, consumers are fickle, and as far as tablet and mobile computing goes, they only barely know what it is they wanted yesterday, much less what they’ll want tomorrow. One thing that seems to beat this fickle-ness is apps. People know they want apps – as many apps as they can consume.
Developers will, of course, flock to the place where they can reach the largest number of people. Currently, this may seem like the Android platform, but without some kind of uniformity, it gets difficult to green-light a project and then only have it be marketed to specific devices. In this sense, fragmentation of the Android platform currently may be what kills the platform as a viable contender tomorrow. In the age of apps, people don’t want to hear “oh, your phone can’t support Netflix because of its processor".
As much as Apple gets flack for their products for reasons A, B, or C, they had the right idea from the start. For the vast majority of people, especially those that aren’t reading this right now, a phone is just a phone. Knowing what processor a phone has, knowing how much RAM it has, will only further confuse these consumers. They want the phone that was running the app their friend had, they want the phone that is unabashedly simple to learn because they feel they don’t have enough time in their day. This is why iOS, Android, Blackberry OS, and Windows Phone 7 all borrow liberally from one another. All are trying to understand their consumer and at the same time establish a baseline so that consumers can easily say “ok, I know my phone will come with this set of features regardless".
Cool or Uncool
Over time, in my opinion, phones and tablets will turn into more and more amorphous blobs of just “cool" or “uncool" as the consumer market moves in that direction. In a few years’ time, it won’t matter what processor a phone has, or what its pixel density is, these concepts will become uniform as they reach the limits of what our current technology can offer or what consumers want. For instance, with phone and tablet screens, somewhere around 300 ppi in density is right around the limits of our biology, specifically the resolution the human eye is capable of seeing. This is all a matter of “when", not “if", because all phones and all tablets want to be accessible at the right price point for consumers of the top products.
The Wars of Old, The Wars of Tomorrow
Interestingly enough, I believe that when this convergence happens, we’ll start to see backtracking into the space that’s currently unoccupied, the non-premium computing space. Currently, tablets in particular, have only the VAIOs of their space – high-end models that only those with large amounts of disposable income can purchase. We need to see companies moving into territory that laptop makers like HP and Dell currently occupy; tablets and phones priced and spec-ed for a very different kind of audience. Proliferation of these devices would reach record highs, something we’ve seen recently with the HP Touchpad firesale. A $500 price tag is out of the reach of several echelons of the population, change that to $100, and you’ll see sales fly through the roof because that’s a number people can agree with more readily. I think the sweet-spot for tablets is going to be somewhere around the price of the current gaming consoles, or around $200-$250. The other interesting part is that at this kind of price, they wouldn’t have to compete with the iPad because you’re talking about a wholly different segment of consumers. It’s a brave new world in the mobile computing space, and we can't predict exactly when and where this convergence of products will happen, but one thing’s for sure, it’s going to radically change the way people view their mobile product purchases – whether that’s for the best, only time will tell.