We’ve been having an excellent little conversation around the Notion Ink tablet – and tablets in general – over at CrunchGear these past few weeks and I thought it might be interesting to address some of the magical thinking that poisons tech, especially hardware, discussion. Because you and I are reading tech blogs and because tech blogs, primarily, cater to early adopters, there is a consistent and constant litany of specs, speeds, feeds, and quite a bit of “wishful” maundering by fans and anti-fans alike describing this future feature or that future devices from certain manufacturers. “The new Motorola tablet will kill all the rest of the tablets,” we cry, sure and right! “Android is better than Windows Phone 7 forever,” we scream! And then someone replies with an opposing opinion and it’s on like Donkey Kong. Case in point: today I was encouraged to take my own life for my admittedly negative opinion of a particular device. Thank god this isn’t a political blog or I’d be bashed dead in a ravine somewhere.
Let me address my first and most important point: 99% of the earth’s population cares not a whit about Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Honeycomb, Tegra 2, Sand Hill, or SSDs. They want to turn on their computers, tap out an email to a friend, and turn it off. They want to get orders through their Blackberry, email their employees, and go back to their job as florists, carpenters, and bank tellers. To paraphrase Louis CK, they own a landscaping business, they’re respectable, why do they need the “hot” device? They sure as heck don’t have time to meander through spec sheets let alone give a damn what those spec sheets say.
Microsoft, of all companies, understands this perfectly. From their original WTF commercials featuring Jerry Seinfeld to their recent crop of Laptop Hunters commercials and, finally, their “get stuff done” treatment of Windows Phone 7, everything about Microsoft’s marketing is about the reduction of man-machine interaction. The company that created the nerd now wants you to understand that it knows you’re not a nerd and that you want to do fun stuff in your life other than surfing the web.
Technical issues rarely escape into the mainstream. In fact, it can be said that the last time a real, honest to goodness technical issue made it out into wider world was the entire antennagate scandal. Nothing similar has piqued world-wide interest as much as that scandal and the lead-up – the leaks, the countless interviews, the already popular device – added frisson to what is essentially an argument about radio dynamics. When’s the last time any other scientific topic aside the age-old arguments about evolution and childhood vaccination passed through the barrier of topical interest and into the mainstream? Sure, the Science section of the NYT does some great reporting, but it’s hard to stick high-tech news between sports and weather on Ten O’Clock News With Lisa Hughes, Scranton’s #1 Anchor.
Other than that, all of this spec-quoting and fanboism is a sort of entertainment and, at my own peril, I agree with much of the fanboism inherent in these entertainments. We report news, to be sure, and the vast majority of our posts have some kernel of news in them. We very rarely bloviate, although there are often exceptions to that rule. But when a friend of mine calls Steve Jobs a fascist, I’m required to remind him that Mussolini is probably closer to a fascist in the great book of life. Steve Jobs will be remembered like Edison – wild-eyed, driven, prone to fits of intellectual theft, and charmingly adept at creating important hardware.
So, that said, what is my first point? My first point is that this stuff isn’t nearly as important to the “world” and to manufacturers as we think it is. Most products are in a pipeline six months long. Items coming out at CES were probably complete or at lease prototyped by last CES and the things that are going into R&D and production today will blow your mind this summer. That’s how this industry works. It is very rare that a company even pays attention to our ceaseless, maudlin dirt-kicking and when they do it is a pleasant and funny surprise. Take Google TV, for example. Google’s TV team actually called us and asked us about our opinions regarding Google TV and, in some small way, we hope that we did a bit of good in the world. But for every Google TV team (and Google doesn’t make hardware, so they can afford to putz around with bloggers a bit), there is an Apple or a Sony or a Dell, companies that think we’re a bunch of needy parasites.
Second, the goal of tech writing is first to inform and second to steer consumers from the shoals of obsolescence and treachery. Manufacturers know that no one reads or cares about specs so they’ll sell all kinds of garbage, from $99 “tablets” at Walgreens to crippled laptops full of bloatware. This is not to say that all manufacturers hate us, but they definitely don’t love us. They need to sell out their stock before the Next Big Shipment comes in. Whether that means reducing the price ridiculously or selling their products to even more unsuspecting folks in the SkyMall catalog. This is a business. A business requires product, distribution, and customers, and the ideal customer is one who doesn’t know the difference between the Donut, Danish, Honeycomb, and Fruit Trix versions of Android.
So huzzah, brave reader, you are of a rare breed. You actually care. And, for the most part, manufacturers care about you, if only because you are what their marketing people call “influencers.” But next time you hitch up your underwear tight against the insides of your thighs and prepare to write a long, outraged screed against one item or another, just remember: we’re the only people really listening, and our underwear is as tight as yours.