Wednesday, December 30, 2015

One Machine to Rule Them All: The Changing Faces of Mobile Computing

Over the last year or so, Microsoft, Google, and Apple have all introduced semi-new products that are designed to address what each company must think is a particular niche in mobile computing. I don't really know what to call this niche: big tablet? convertible? snazzy work machine? In effect, the iPad Pro, the Surface (Pro), and the Pixel C all take aim at roughly the same market segment. "Take aim" might not be the right wording but I hope you get my drift. Each of the "major" companies in mobile computing is trying to create a product that sits somewhere between a tablet and a laptop, with elements of each, making it useful for those things for which people use tablet -- gaming, video watching, reading, emailing -- and those things for which people use laptops, which could be just about anything these days, but let's assume its production as in work.  How valuable are these new products? Does the fact that Google, Apple, and Microsoft are all trying to create products to attract consumers to approach to computing bode a change in mobile computing? If so, what is the change and what are its implications? In other words, is there something cultural going on here, as opposed to just a new product or three hitting the market?

I rarely comment on tech matters. I wrote a note on my G+ account awhile ago explaining what I thought Google did right with Chrome OS, and I commented on an android-based Asus slider I bought in 2011 (its still around but getting, I will confess, a bit "long in the tooth" -- its responsiveness is slowed and whether or not it can run the updated version of the apps I use regularly has become an open question but its given me +4 years of work and so I don't have much to complain about). There might be another odd comment in there here and there, but that is about it. I rarely comment on technical matters because, well, I don't really think I'm qualified to. I commented on my slider to ... well ... boast about what was then a snazzy new product. I wrote about Chrome OS (the OS of Chromebooks) because I thought a great deal of the commentary on  it -- which faulted it for what it was not -- missed the point (its appeal lay in what it seemed to be, I argued, in its continuity; not its innovation).  I comment on Canadian Studies -- the burden of this blog -- for a variety of reasons but one of those reasons is that I know something about the subject and so can -- perhaps more easily than someone who does not -- differentiate  accurate from the inaccurate comments, etc., made in the public sphere. I can't really make the same claim for tech matters so ... why am I commenting on these new convertibles?

The key reason is that I'm interested in them. It is possible that the fact that Google, MS, and Apple are all trying to address the same market might be a product oligopolistic market behaviour (where there are a limited number of market actors, their behaviour tends to mirror each other). But, I actually think something else is going on and I think its cultural as much as technology directed. What is it?

I think that each of these companies is looking for the next thing in mobile computing. Advances in technology make this possible the same way that advances in technology (smaller drives, faster processors, touch manipulation) made the tablet and smart phone possible. I'm intrigued and I think that this is partly because I am likely someone who fits the supposed target market for these products. I make daily use of technology for work. I'm not a heavy user by any stretch, but I write, research, keep track of grades, put together presentations, correspond, etc. My tablet is also a part of my reading experience (as is the computer in my office). I read books as in books with covers (my wife is a Kobo fan), but I read articles and the newspaper on a small tablet that is actually a left over one of my son's. In other words, I fit the bill of someone who could use a convertible, big tablet, power ,machine?, because I use both a tablet and a computer and I use that computer on the road. I'm an historian by occupation and so going places (even if its just to the Bell Library at Mount A) to conduct research is part of my gig.

We've seen an effort to find this next thing before. In some ways netbooks were similar. Small mobile devices and flip Chromebooks, but not quite. I noted one time before that the netbook illustrated that there was a market for inexpensive mobile computing that Chromebooks took advantage of (and it turns out that that market is in the schools!).  The question is has that market changed? Is there a market for expensive mobile computing? That market is, in a way, occupied already by a combination of devices -- the laptop, the tablet, the smart phone. Does the emergence of these products signify a change in that market ... where we move past the laptop and tablet toward this new type of device.

To judge from the students in my classes and my younger relatives the answer is both yes and no. Some embrace the new approach to mobile computing using an iPad or a Surface Pro as their daily work machine. But, most do not. My daughter, for instance, rarely uses an iPad for anything. My wife uses it only for gaming and looking up either the weather or recipes. I use one, as I said, for reading and checking email now and then. I've tried to use tablets as productivity machines (witness my slider) over the years and have had a bit of success (I used the slider for in-class presentations, e-mail correspondence, for instance, and did a small bit of writing on it for a non-university class I taught), but I will confess that, in retrospect, that success was far more limited than I had hoped. I just did not feel comfortable using a tablet as a work-a-day machine. (I might be odd but I like the big screen that comes with an iMac or Chromebase and I like a full-sized keyboard).

What does all this amount to? Well, these are all anecdotes but they indicate the following: computing is fragmented. There is no "one machine to rule them all." My wife uses her phone to call or text, her laptop for email or watch Netflix, a tablet to game or check recipes, etc. (This fragmentation is also the reason I'd argue against the merging of Android and Chrome OS but that is another story.) These new machines won't unify this fragmented approach to mobile computing but their aim, from what I can tell, is to draw some of it together. But, I also think that they will run into trouble because (a) their format is not inherently useful to some mobile computing goals (they are, for instance, too big to "curl up with" to read a book hence the Kobo is likely to hang around), (b) they are awfully expensive (I'd like to get one, I really would, but I just can't justify the money right now. They all move north of $1K with accessories), (c) the uses that they do have are not uses that everyone wants or needs. The iPad pro stylus for instance may be really good but after you've played around with it for a short while ... how many ordinary users are going to make much use of it, that is: IOW, these products all retain idiosyncratic niche market (or, market segment) features, and (d) they may not be needed for a great deal of the work people do. The ability to work on the train or bus or in a park might be of interest to some and periodic interest to me but is not really of on-going interest to me and I suspect it is to only a limited number of other people.

If we add in the fact that most reviews suggest that there are still drawbacks (Android is a good OS for smartphones, the general conclusions of the reviews seems to be, and is getting there on the tablet but it is not quite finished or smooth or responsive enough for daily work ... individual taste allowed), then what this means is that we have new products that will attract a few wealthy or intrigued consumers. But, I suspect that they will also make little dent in the general approach to mobile computing. I don't see people ditching their regular tablet for these new supertablets and I'd be surprised if most people will ditch their laptops. Indeed, I've noticed an interesting pattern where I work. I was one of the first people to have an iPad at work and I used it at work for a while. Over time, I went from being an oddity at Senate or Faculty Council (reading my minutes on a tablet or looking things up as a debate were in progress) to being fairly standard as more and more faculty obtained tablets. This year, I noticed a reverse. Instead of coming with iPads, faculty and students showed up with laptops again. Why? They were more useful. One could more quickly and easily check records, refer to previous debates, look up examples, sent out notices, etc., on a laptop. The devise was more responsive and more flexible. Hence, people used it. In my classes, this is also the approach most students (heck, the vast majority of students) take. The come to class and open their laptop. I've seen the same thing in the Library and the Cafe.

What do we learn form all this? We learn that companies are still looking for a market convergence device even though consumers do not appear to be. While these big name companies and perhaps a few supertechies are looking for a single device to rule them all, consumers -- on the other hand -- appear quite content with a series of different devices that do discrete things but do those discrete things well. In other words, there is a disjuncture between the consumer approach to the use of technology and big companies' impressions (and techie impressions) of what consumers' approach should be. (And, I might add, why shouldn't consumers behave this way? I use different devices to listen to the radio, watch TV, write, distract myself with music while I exercise. And, truth be told, this does not work poorly at all. I could, I know, use the same product for each of these activities -- well, except exercise, I go to the "fitness centre" for that) but I don't. Instead, I use products that I know and that work well doing the one thing that they claim to do well.)

There might be good reason -- other than entrenched consumer behaviour -- for this and some products might be easily compatible with multiple aims. I use an iPod to listen to music while I exercise but my wife uses her iPhone (that is, the same device she uses to call people and to text). But, others are not. What I am looking for from a reading device is something different than what I am looking for from a working device. I want my production computer to be able to do certain things and will pay a certain price to get it to do those things. But, I don't need the same things from a device that I'll use when I'm lying on the couch reading the news waiting for the game to come on. I think the idea that all devices need to converge to become productive, entertainment, communication, artistic, work, etc., is not the way the average consumer thinks about their devices. That might change, but I actually see little evidence that that change is waiting in the wings. What this means, then, is either (a) the fragmentation of mobile computing will continue or (b) people will end up using devices for less than optimal reasons. If you are using a Surface Pro as an iPad to play Bejeweled ... well ... you are under-using that machine.

Second, the fragmentation in mobile computing will also likely continue along another axes that is not often discussed but which seems to be there: class. The expensive products really are beautifully designed and remarkably useful in some respects. Apple products, for instance, are amazingly responsive and great for watching videos. We will, I think, see a continuity of the class division in mobile computing occasioned by the cost of these new items.  Some people will be able to pay to under-use their machines. My daughter and I were instantly captivated by the iPad Pro we saw at Staples. We might have bought one but if we did, that would not have changed the way I work. I would have been part of that process: using a high-end product because I could afford it when a non-high end product is all that is needed.

Finally, what makes all this possible is worth noting and that is another but different form of convergence. Back in the day, the specific product one used -- the computer or, more exactly, the OS -- the specific app; the mobile OS, etc., that was linked to a specific phone, was important because different products were not -- or, not easily -- compatible with one another.  Years ago a friend of mine and I were devotees of a application called "Mac Link Plus" because it allowed we Mac users to convert files sent to use over email (or, via disk!) into a format we could read and edit (and, then, convert them back). This was before the days of widespread use of pdfs. And, there are likely those people "out there" who remember that one could even have problems reading emails sent from different email clients on different OSes, let alone accessing web pages. I used to have to keep Internet Explorer, for example, on my hard drive because there were web sites that I could not access (and needed to) using another web browser, even if that browser was compliant with whatever passed back then for web standards.

Those days are by-and-large gone. PDFs make it easy to distribute files; open web standards mean that most top line browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, ... and I am sure Edge even thought I've not used it) can access any web page. Email is completely transparent (and a great number of people use web mail anyway), and there are so many programmes that easily translate MS Office file formats that it is rarely a problem (making MS Office a sort of default standard despite the fact that it is proprietary). Said differently, we can use different products for different applications because of the remarkable increase in compatibility. I am not certain we will see interchangeable apps in the future -- for a discussion look here -- I'm not even certain I want to see interchangeable apps (apps that run on any product regardless of OS). I kind of like the variety. But, I do need compatibility and that is what we have now. And, as long as we have that. I don't need product convergence.

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