Friday, March 07, 2014

Tablet And Cell Phone Sales Are Slowing, And That's A Good Thing

UPDATE: I didn't realize this when I wrote it, but Samsung's current ad campaign IS "The Next Big Thing". That's hilarious to me.

Apple and its investors are in a panic right now because tablet and cell phone sales are slowing. First off, I'm amazed that anyone is surprised by this. As soon as the Moto G came out, I knew that we were near the end of the smartphone explosion. And even before that, the writing was on the wall.

Apple's competitors have been trying very hard to be Apple. Aside from Samsung, which through sheer brute force managed to become the default Android phone, smartphone companies are not earning money. That's because they cannot be Apple. Apple is Apple because they were the first out the gate. They created a new market. Along with the apple cachet, this allowed Apple to charge a premium and make huge profits.

The only option for the Johnny-come-lately companies it to compete on price. None of them wanted to do this because it's not sexy. It's also a brutal place to be. But which is better, being in a brutal but profitable market, or being bankrupt? Obviously, for companies like HTC, Blackberry, Sony, and Nokia, they all decided that bankruptcy was the better choice. Man, those MBAs are really paying off.

During this slow motion train wreck, these companies threw everything at the wall. Gaming phones and tablets, curved screens, touch panels all over, specialized hardware. They threw it out there, didn't support it, and watched it die. For the winners, all this change resulted in huge profits. But one of the big reasons for that was that with every generation, big changes took place. The iPhone 3Gs was a huge leap from the original iPhone. That is no longer the case.

As I said, the Moto G was the beginning of the end. It was a good enough phone for less than $200 unlocked. The Nokia 510 is another good enough phone for dirt cheap. When products that are super cheap are good enough, the vast majority of people have no reason to upgrade.

And this is fantastic. I grew to hate Apple and their flock because it was always about the next great thing. This earned them huge sales, but stunted the actual potential of their creations. For example, biological evolution requires a stressful but stable environment for changes and selection to take place. If the environment is always changing, there is no persistent pressure to affect selection and evolution never takes places.

The technology market is the same thing. For practical progress to be made, arbitrary progress must slow down. Technological features and standards must remain static so companies can find ways to implement them. If they expect rapid changes, companies will not invest. Software will remain simple, light-weight, and easy to update.

Everyone who lived through the 80's and early 90's remembers that joke about technology being obsolete before you get it home. That joke stopped working in the 2000's because computers stabilized. Software complexity increased a hundred fold in the 90's not just because of technological advancements, but because the market remained mostly stable. A computer bought in 1995 could run software in 2000. I was using a computer that I built in 2002 in 2011. This allowed developers to dump huge amounts of time and money into development knowing that the market would remain open for years into the future.

Developers today have no idea what to expect from the next iPad or iOS. Android is even worse because Google is treating it like its own little fiefdom. Windows Phone has had three major architectural changes and it's barely three years old, with another change in the pipes. Windows RT is a disaster. Windows 8 is only a slightly smaller disaster.

I've always said, I don't want the next best thing, I want the thing that I buy to be functional for ten years.


I actually have a personal example of technological change causing harm. Back in the early 2000's, Microsoft was pushing a package of sorts on how to develop robust online applications through Visual Basic 6, Windows 2000, and a few other bits of technology. Visual Basic had already been around for years and had become an immensely successful programming language. This push of theirs was likewise a huge hit. Thousands of develops piled on to create online applications with Microsoft tools.

So Microsoft did the only logical thing: they deprecated all of Visual Studio in favor of .Net. You may not know what .Net is, but I'm sure that you've had problems with downloading updates to .Net to get programs to run. It's a software framework in which a programmer can make software. Any changes to the framework can break software and fuck developers. So when framework changes come down the pipe, it is a terrifying time.

Sometimes, major architectural shifts are great. Apple did that when they released OSX. But Apple had an installed base that was one one-hundredth the size of Windows. They needed change to survive.

When Microsoft did the same thing, they threw the world into chaos. Evolution stopped because people needed to adapt to this new framework, much of which was arbitrarily different.

Microsoft did this because technological stability/stagnancy is a poor profit generator for a company that makes money off the framework. They maximize profits by keeping the framework fluid. Keep customers and developers chasing the next big thing. Indeed, producing a perfect product is the last these companies want, and I hate that.

Look at Windows XP. 30% of computers still run Windows XP and Microsoft is beginning a campaign of annoyance to try to force these people to switch to a newer OS.They made an amazing product with Windows XP. In fact, they made it so good, they were unable to convince people to leave it. And in the twisted logic of software companies, that's a bad thing.

What happened to .Net? Well, I can't directly associate the betrayal of Microsoft's developer base with this trend, but it must play at least a part; Visual Studio saw a massive drop in significance. Visual Basic went from being one of the top three most widely used languages on the planet to, as far as I know, not even in the top ten, although this is a very hard measurement to make. I do know that good old VB6 is still more popular than VB.Net, though, and that says something very important about developers:

They want their shit to work, nothing more.


For a few years, everyone seemed wrapped up in the "Post-PC" era nonsense. This was of course just marketing blather to sell tablets. If anything, we are entering the true age of the PC, when they become as stable and ubiquitous as cars and refrigerators. Do we see double digit growth in car sales? No. Of course we don't. That doesn't mean we have entered the post-car era.

But sales are what matters, not actual development. So the stability of the PC was lambasted as dying, while the white-hot tablet and cell phone market was thriving. What they actually meant was that tablets and cell phones were obsolescing faster. It was like the 1980's and 1990's PC market all over again. But just as with the PC, the tablet was cruising to stability. It had to. Which again explains why I was so amazed by anyone who was surprised when the steam started to go out of this Post-PC epoch.

Perhaps it is because our experience in the past moved more slowly. But that was a different time, a different world. Tablets and cell phones moved far more quickly than computers did. Because of that, I think they have already reached their proverbial Windows XP moment, where the products and frameworks being bought today will be good enough for the next five to ten years.

And I couldn't be happier. I love tablets. I think they have an immense amount of potential to do great things. But their consumer focus and ever-changing frameworks prevent real progress from happening. Instead, tablets are primarily used as tools to fuck around on Facebook. And while smartphones have a lot of fun apps, the vast majority of them are mere junk — trifles with which people can while away some time.

I want something more from them, and for that to happen, they need to stop changing. Apple and their ilk will fight this. They always want us chasing the next big thing, real change and development be damned. That's why everyone is starting to flip out about Google Glass and Smart Watches. They need us focused on the next big thing. (See update above)

Tablets and smartphones are no longer the next big thing, and that's great.

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