Friday, March 06, 2015

Opinion piece: Big consumer electronics vendors in search of the next gizmo

Big consumers electronics vendors are in search of the next gizmo that will drive-up revenues. Looking at the past few years in tech, it seems that many don't know how to introduce technology nor what makes it great for their target customer. Let's start by listing a few examples.

Curved screens

Let's give them a curved TV and curved phones, because we can, and because there's an odd chance people may find them cool. This was a failure from the get-go and the reason for it is quite simple; the designers and marketing guys didn't focus on answering the primordial question; are we significantly improving the user experience with this product?
The answer is a resounding no and here are a few reasons why:

  • A curved screen doesn't significantly enhance the viewing experience; large TVs are still used in the living room where they are watched by more than one person, which defeats the purpose of a curved screen that requires the viewer to sit at a special focal point to be most effective. For smartphone screens, it just is too small to make any difference whatsoever
  • A curved TV screen imposes a configuration of the environment surrounding it instead of the other way around: a curved screen has a narrower viewing angle which means furniture will need to be placed accordingly. Furthermore, the screen almost needs to be placed on a pedestal (it looks silly otherwise) which prevents or makes it cumbersome to use any kind of wall framing. This rigid framework is too limiting for most people
  • Seems that the hard-curved screen goes against the other trend of providing ever thinner screens. A curved screen is by definition going to be requiring more depth or real-estate

  • Existing protective covers no longer fit on that fancy curved smartphone you just bought. Quick personal branding is more difficult

The technology itself does have its applications: computer monitors may benefit from 180 degrees screens, the obvious Imax-type theaters were the screen can surround a large audience, soft-screens which be easily customized to their physical environment, etc. Similarly, for applications such as a watch face, a curved screen makes sense. But as a mass market TV or smartphone element, curved screens were dead-on-arrival. Hint Samsung: your S6-edge smartphone will fail if the only differentiation from the regular model are the curved edges.

3D screens and movies
A screen that has a reduced resolution, viewing angle, and/or requires goggles. Is the experience significantly enhanced by being 3D? Not for a fixed-plot story... Videogames will benefit significantly as the player is immersed in an universe it interacts with, and a visual story-line created in real-time (VR-headsets will be successful), while a movie/TV is a linear and 3rd person medium where 3D detracts from the narrative. Unless the plot is strictly eye-candy, in which case it is a sub-market which may or may not justify the premium.

Smart watches

My question for the big consumer tech vendors is; when are you going to make one?
I would argue that the current Samsung/LG/Motorola/whathaveyou smartwatch offerings are not smartwatches at all. That is, they are not watches that are smart. They are smartphones with a wristband. Because they lost the essence of what a watch is; to tell time in the easiest, prettiest and/or ruggedest way possible.
I mean easiest in the largest possible sense of the word; a watch that you don't have be concerned about. You should be able to put it on in the morning and not worry about it being scratched, being destroyed because you forgot to take it off in the shower, being unable to read time because of viewing angle/abundance or lack of light. And certainly not have to fiddle with it to get the very basic of its function... giving you the current time!

What comes closest is still the Pebble which has not compromised on being a watch for the sake of becoming a smartphone-on-a-wrist.

Now, maybe it will be that consumers will make the shift and ditch watches altogether and replace them all by smart-wrist-gizmos, but I doubt it.

Apple might have done it by appealing in to the very highest segment with super-premium, uber-expensive watches. But then, the question is whether a smart-watch will have the same appeal and timelessness as a proper "dumb" timepiece. Provided that in 5 years, a smartwatch you bought today will have zero residual value, and when compared to a proper "time-piece" which is likely to increase in value with time, I would say it is highly unlikely...

The race to increasingly ludicrous smartphone pixel density

The meaningful limit on the number of pixels that makes sense to put on a screen should, at least in theory, be what your eyes can see. I would argue that it translates to about 200 pixels per inch. This is plenty to make any curved or diagonal line appear smooth as if drawn (as opposed to being made of little square-ish dots).
That limit was reached with full HD screens for smartphones of size around 5 inches. But when the 4k screen technology became available, big tech decided to package it into their phones as a differentiator. The results is that customers get very little additional viewing benefits, yet have to pay the price in terms of battery consumption, reduced performance, and higher cost.
I see little evidence that demand has supported 4k smartphone screens. True, users keep buying those newer phones but they are also doing so for a myriad of other reasons.

Smart wear
2014 saw the "failure" of Google Glass. I double-quoted failure because Google Glass didn't fail to provide compelling enough technology. Being able to see, at a quick glance, which restaurants surround you (with superimposed reviews, menu highlights, then make a reservation by looking at it), receive a warning that you are about to cross a street and  there's a car coming, automatically and transparently translate a foreign language ... Those are all very desirable and marketable applications of smart-glasses. Having an augmented reality environment is something that will eventually become mainstream in one form or another. It is not a question of "if" but rather one of "when" and in what form. The problem is that Google Glass failed to provide it in a container that customers wanted. The glasses portion was mostly a support for a bulky computer and screen. It screemed "nerd"!

Any wearable is a reflection of the person wearing it. No matter how cool the technology may be, it also needs to be visually acceptable to the person wearing it.

To be fair to Google, greenfield inovation always need some tweaking and there are indications that they will come back with a better end-user product soon.

Technology for the sake of it won't drive demand

In all the examples above, we see big tech pushing for technology for the sake of it, seemingly without asking itself some basic marketing questions about demand, in the hope that something sticks. That sometimes work. Most often it doesn't.

I am not saying that technology cannot be its own driver for customer demand, it can and it has (numerous times) in the past. We can think of Apple introducing the iPhone; it provided a compelling technological solution to a world need that was mostly created. So did Facebook. There are countless others...

The difference is that between a successful technology push and a failed one is those key questions that should always be answered as part of a go-to market strategy:
  • Who's going to use our product?
  • Why are they going to use it?
  • How enhanced is the user experience of this technology? (in terms of enjoyment and ergonomics)
  • What is the image/branding of this technology? And does the branding conflict with the values and personal branding of our target customer? (the projected image; that is, what the promoter of technology intends, and the experienced image; what the product makes one feel)
  • Are there a lot of people who are likely to be interested by and buying that technology, and at what price-point (can we build it at that price?), and how do we find out?
Apple has been quite good at this fine balance of design-marketing and technology. Their branding is so good that they can release average products (iPhone 5) and still command a huge premium... and adulation. But that's another story...
Tesla Motors is another example of this fine balance. Tesla didn't just make an electric car because technology was available, as many other vendors have; they understood that to command the premium that electric cars do, they had to make not only a premium branded car, they had to make the sexiest, best darn car you can buy for that price.

Looking ahead... If I apply the same trends and questioning in a forward-looking manner, I would venture to say that we'll see the following over the next few years:
  • 8k screens which will be successful for TVs, 4k might be abandoned for smartphones (or become so cheap that there's no cost incentive in offering lower resolution)
  • 16k screens will be tried and will fail for mass consumption. There is no life beyond 8k
  • Augmented reality contact lenses. Should have some success if the ease of use can be dealt with (basically, putting them on)
  • 3D TV screens will go the way of the Dodo. And hopefully in theaters too
  • Modular smart wear-ables; smartbands with standard-size easy clips to an existing watch, with dedicated functions (GPS, camera, heart monitor, etc). Bands that will attach to other body parts for activity specific functions (running, hiking, swimming, etc). Essentially, we'll see the equivalent of Project Ara for wear-ables.