Friday, January 18, 2013

The Sky Isn't Falling!

Look Up...Look Out

Never imagine that commentators are journalists simply because they command a headline.  If you were to succumb to that notion, you would could be convinced that the digital sky is falling, e.g. The PC Looks Like It's Dying.  Insightful journalism may be in greater danger.

I believe that the article above and most of the other Chicken Little commentators are missing a shift in computer use that amounts to a shudder in the tectonic plates under Southern California.  Computing is splitting in at least two basic ways,. driven by lower prices and new operating systems: principally the mobile form of computing (iOS, Android and even Windows 8) and traditional desktop computing (Win 7, OSX, Linux etc.)  I realize that this is a gross simplification, almost as bad as "the PC is dead", but bear with me.

Ruled by Geeks 

For decades computing has been driven by geeks.  Imagine the car industry being steered by testosterone powered NASCAR pilots. These are the gear-heads who know and love the complexity of internal combustion and MacPherson independent suspensions.  They know that drag coefficient has nothing to do with lifestyle choices.  On the other hand, they haven't the foggiest idea about whether the cosmetic mirror should be magnified and have a light, the ideal placement of cup holders or the content of the Drivers Information Center in the IP.

The analogy in computing is that geeks have forced the rest of us to learn their complicated languages and climb their interface trees while hunting for a picture we just loaded.  This wasn't malicious intent; we wanted to get involved in this fascinating digital world. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Dell and HP caught on and built pretty good businesses out of helping us into the shark tank for a paddle.

Most of us have just shrugged and gone along with this wondrously complex world of operating systems and their GUI's in order to get along.  Some of us have become pretty competent in a world of word processors, spreadsheets, explorer files etc.  As a matter of fact, over nearly 30 years of muddling through and hanging out with much smarter people, I have learned enough to know my way around a PC (Win 8) or Mac (Mt. Lion).

Driven by Mobility

Enter cell phones and the hamster wheel begins to speed up.  Jump on; it's a wild ride since the turn of the 21st Century: PDA's (any old Palm Pilot fans out there?), smartphones (iPhones and Droids), tablets (iPads, Kindles, Nooks and Nexus 7), "phablets" (Galaxy Note IIs), ultra books (MacBook Air) and now hybrids (Surface RT and Pro).  I'm sure to have missed some steps, but you get the idea: Mobile devices with simpler and simpler interfaces are taking over the computing world.

One of the most ironic aspects of this brave new world has been the heat that Windows 8 has taken from the tech press (all card-carrying geeks).  Most of them have sneered or worse at the new operating system from Redmond and declared that they are simply going to work on the desktop in Win 8 or stick with Win 7.  Good for them, but they miss the point entirely…it’s not about them.  They entirely miss the point that this OS was created for future computers and their users, most of whom will be using touch screens on highly portable tablet/computers.  Then there are also the millions of new tablet users who just don’t want many choices when they open up their screen.  Just a few please, like mail, messaging, browsing , watching a video and pictures. Done and done for the vast majority of them.

It's not that PC's are dying, but rather that consumers are being sucked into a merry miasma of icons and apps in simple bright packages that execute one task at a time.  Voila, the recipe for success: Give them a slice of cake, not the whole thing from recipe to oven temp to frosting choice.  Let the consumer have the few choices they want, be that email, texting, picture editing and watching videos or listening to music and they are as happy as clams in mud. Drop the price of that handy, light, give-them-a-limited-menu device to prices that will fit on a Wal-Mart shelf and you have millions of "muggles" e.g. ordinary folks, beating a path to your door.  Add to that the interface revolution (touch, voice, even gesture) and you have a brand new world of digital devices and users who heretofore felt intimidated by or uninterested in the hugely complex and unfriendly digital jungle gyms. 

Cars and Trucks

Whoa, what about the PC users?  They are still there, by the millions, working on the Microsoft Windows XP or 7 or Apple OSX machines blithely ignorant of and uninterested in all these FP (Fisher Price) computing toys, as one of my favorite wonks would say.  Actually they are also probably voracious consumers of all the other toys out there because they are hopeless gadget freaks.  They will continue to use mice and keyboards to interact with their machines until something compelling comes along that helps them to do what they like best on their PC's: video editing, manufacturing design, accounting or whatever requires the complex and beautiful software they cherish.

I think that Steve Jobs’ analogy best sums up what is going on in the computer industry right now.  In 2010 at D8, the co-founder of Apple described computers as either cars or trucks and said that the PC is a truck.  As such there will always be a need for that kind of heavy-duty vehicle in the market (look at how well pick ups are selling in an energy conscious automobile market!) either because they fill a need or people just like the feel of the big wheel.  On the other hand we are just now beginning to develop devices (Microsoft now cleverly calls itself "a devices and services" company) that everyday folks want to drive.  To use the analogy of the car again, they have an enormous range of choice from sporty manual transmissions to cars that park themselves.  The key is that there are devices that offer less choices and more function.  A simpler array of "apps" lets them snap to the functions that people want and ignore or save for later other functions that require more attention.  Tablets are popular right now because they are lightweight, relatively fast and offer the user a simple array of the functions they want from Netflix to gaming and all the stops in between.

Down the Hybrid Highway

So, pilgrim, the sky is not falling on the PC; it is, however, reflecting the bright northern lights of another wave of computing that is most definitely more proletarian.  People like my dear wife 
Ginny and millions of others just want simple interfaces with active tiles that give them essential hints about what is going on in the areas that most interest them and easy access to that information.  And someone out there will make a ton of money giving them what they want, even if they aren't certified geeks.  That should keep us occupied at least until embedded neural computers make us wonder whether we want to belong to another Brave New World alongside our iRobots!