Exerting Control

Technology news outlets this past week were awash with CES glitz and glamour, but the vast majority of the product offerings on display lack one crucial characteristic. In the broadest sense of the word, the most prominent manufacturers at CES lack any semblance of control. Whether it's self-control, control over an ecosystem, or control over their software, manufacturers have repeatedly shown their ineptitude at recognizing the growing need for control in the technology marketplace.

Earlier this week, Intel proudly announced that there will be 75 Ultrabooks made available this year. That is, seventy five takes on the same concept, produced by a relatively small number of manufacturers. The mere fact that such a number is perceived as a marketable point of pride is ridiculous. Granted, for Intel, supplanting its silicon into as many products as possible is the primary goal, but looking at the laptop manufacturers, it is emblematic of a sincere problem in the modern Windows PC marketplace.

The thin and light laptop market is clearly profitable, but simply flooding the market with products in the hope that one might survive is the wrong approach.

Consider Apple. Gartner recently released its analysis of fourth quarter PC shipments in which it is stated:

Apple enjoyed the strongest growth among the top five vendors.

Whereas the Ultrabook market:

Ultrabooks didn’t seem to draw consumers’ attention. Consumers had very little understanding and awareness of ultrabooks, and only a small group of consumers was willing to pay the price premium for such models.

While Ultrabooks are a relatively new concept in the Windows PC market, their performance (or lack thereof) is inexcusable. All seventy five of the Ultrabooks that will go on sale in 2012 will be compared to Apple's one MacBook Air that has been on the market since 2008, and most will fall short. With Gartner's results, Apple continues to prove that the demonstration of self-control in the marketplace is an affable and important quality to embrace.

More than it is a demonstration of phenomenal new products, CES has become a celebration of a lack of control. Fittingly located in Las Vegas, manufacturers cart out loud and colorful displays filled with all too many iterations of the same products, replacements of recent flagship devices, and tease impending devices that are set to relegate their current "best" to obsolescence.

I have nothing against innovation and the evolution of product lines, but much of what is being shown at CES fails at both of the aforementioned goals. Looking back at the tablet marketplace in 2011, Alexis Madrigal writes for The Atlantic:

We broke down the trajectories of 17 tablets from CES 2011. In the final tally, I think you could say one is a qualified success (the Asus Eee Pad Transformer), one did OK (the Motorola XOOM), and several flopped (Dell Streak, RIM Playbook) or made no impact (Coby Kyrus, Cydle M7 Multipad, Naxa NID-7001). Nine never were heard from again.

The results indicate that in 2011, manufacturers scrambled to compete with Apple's 2010 iPad and one was even remotely successful. Similarly in 2012, manufacturers are scrambling to compete with Apple's 2011 MacBook Air. I don't mean to single out Apple here, but the Cupertino manufacturer's customer-benefiting successes clearly dwarf those of its competitors. Producing only a handful of devices, Apple has built a predictable, iterative, supported, and complimentary product ecosystem. Moreover, Apple has exerted control in the realm of software, thereby developing an all-encompassing environment in which its devices may reside and thrive.

While Samsung, HTC, and Sony might all build novel and brilliant products, none proceed any further. They reside in a vacuum with little-to-no support from the manufacturer or from the software environment. Inter-device interactions, which are arguably becoming paramount to product success, are merely an after thought. All of these manufacturers are finding success in their respective products, but none have shown the intelligence to build a core ecosystem upon which software and hardware may blossom harmoniously.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon once said:

Some of the companies that have made tablets have not been successful because they made tablets. They didn’t make services.

The Kindle Fire has succeeded where so many seasoned manufacturer's tablets have failed, and it's largely due to Amazon's exertion of control over Android, over its own services, and the self-control to release only one compelling device of one size and color to test the waters. Competing Android tablets (with the notable exception of Barnes & Noble's offerings) lack any semblance of control, instead falling to the will of the carrier, Google, and inconsistent support cycles. Such product support is uninspiring, undercutting any degree of confidence a consumer may have once been able to elicit from buying the newest Android tablet.

People line up for the latest iPhone because they can be confident that Apple will not release another for a full year. Those consumers can be further confident that their iPhone, regardless of what the next iteration might bring, will be supported and relevant for years to come. The simplistic "iPhone" moniker, regardless of the ensuing number, is representative of lasting support, product integrity, and a responsive manufacturer. The Samsung Galaxy S II, on the other hand, suffers a lack of strong-handed support and control that results in statements like this:

There's no confirmation yet that Samsung's carrier-branded Galaxy S II variants will be as quick to the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade as the global version, so owners of the AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile variants would be well advised to keep the champagne on ice for now. No roadmap has been set out for the subsequent Android 4 upgrades, though it's reasonable to presume that since all those Tabs aren't bundled in the Q1 announcement, we should expect to see them updated from Q2 onwards.

I applaud Samsung for updating a large portion of its hardware offerings to Android 4.0, but simultaneously, this vague upgrade cycle is disconcerting. Not knowing whether your relatively new phone will receive an OS update simply due to the carrier you purchased it through, or dependent on the manufacturer's responsiveness, is discomforting. Without control, the Samsung Galaxy S II user on AT&T is left wholly in the dark as to whether Android 4.0 will ever, in fact, reach his or her device. For an Apple consumer, regardless of carrier, there is no question that the next iteration of iOS will support your device (as long as it is not unreasonably old). As I wrote recently:

While some of these products might be objectively good, without control over the software, Samsung lacks the latitude to provide and facilitate lengthy support lifetimes for its devices.

As much as people might argue about who the "next Apple" will be, until manufacturers become cognizant of control and associatively accept accountability for product support, none will come close to providing a sufficient experience. Sales alone are not enough. Amazon, above all others, has demonstrated awareness of this.

The exertion of control provides the customer with invaluable peace of mind. It shows confidence, foresight, and a protective instinct for the integrity of the product. When you simply ship as many devices as you can in an attempt to fill any potential market desire, your company's motives are cast askew, damaging the brand and perpetuating the feeling of inevitable obsolescence. Confidence and accountability are important to the consumer, and foregoing those, while it might allow for impressive sales statistics, will never foster lasting loyalty.

"It's Just Stuff"

Shawn Blanc:

You can tell a lot about a man by looking at the sort of car he drives, the grill in his back yard, the phone in his pocket, or the computer in his office. But there is no right or wrong answer here — bigger and more expensive stuff is not at all synonymous with good character and high moral values. In fact, sadly, often the opposite is true.

Instead, look at how he (or she) treats his family. What is his character like? Look at his relationships and his beliefs and how he spends his time. These things — the metaphysical, the intangible — they are the true extension of the soul.

Following CES, many journalists have taken a moment to consider the industry in which they live, and the nature of the consumerism it feeds upon. Shawn's thoughts stand out (along with Mat Honan's) in touching on what it means to be so intimately entwined with technology and consumerism, a topic I have only cursorily discussed in the past.

Worth reading.

Fever Dream of a Guilt-Ridden Gadget Reporter

Mat Honan:

I imagine tuning all the television sets to hardcore gay porn, just to see the spectacle of it all. I fantasize that I am the only one here, in a post-apocalyptic trade show. Alone among these elaborate booths. Free to scamper up on top of them. Free to grab what I want, and actually play with it, like a child. I want to see it all catch fire. I want to pour gasoline in the ducts and light a long fuse, and watch from the street as it burns and burns and burns. My guess is that the flames would be quite beautiful, colored by chemical washes and treated glass. My hangover is killing me.

Honan paints a dystopian picture of CES (and the technology industry as a whole). 

But most poignantly, Honan's experience is not unique.

The hopeless sentiment expressed in his article is symptomatic of a condition many have felt, and are likely to continue to feel, as social interactions become increasingly dependent on synthetic experiences.

The Relevance of CES

The Withings Smart Baby Scale summarizes the problems facing the aging tradeshow (via The Verge)

CES is just getting underway in Las Vegas, and already its relevance and usefulness is coming into question. Nick Wingfield writes in The New York Times:

[...] the show is unlikely to be where any blockbuster products of 2012 are introduced. Many of the hottest new gadgets in recent years — including Apple’s iPad and iPhone, Microsoft’s Kinect and Amazon’s Kindle Fire — were first announced at other events, even though C.E.S. remains the world’s biggest consumer technology convention.

This reflects the changing nature of the technology industry — particularly the fact that the most important developments in the electronics business are no longer coming from the makers of television sets and stereos that have been most closely identified with the show since it started in 1967.

Although there are one or two announcements and trends to follow, the evidence of the increasing irrelevance of CES for big product announcements is indisputable.

(Image via The Verge)