The Death Of The Spec

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Earlier today, my colleague Matt Burns wrote a post noting that most tablet makers may be largely failing because they’ve sold their soul to Android and are now just in the middle of a spec war, which no one can win. I’m gonna go one step further in that line of thinking: the spec is dead.

There have been a few key stories from the past couple of weeks that highlight this new reality. Barnes & Noble unveiled the new Nook Tablet. Consumer Reports looked at the iPhone 4S. And the first reviews came in about the Kindle Fire.

On paper, the Nook Tablet is the Android-based reading tablet to buy. It has twice the RAM of the Kindle Fire, twice the built-in storage space, a better battery, and it’s lighter to boot. Yes, it’s $50 more expensive, but come on, the RAM difference alone is worth well more than that. Clearly, this is the better value for your money.

And yet, the Nook Tablet will not outsell the Kindle Fire. That’s the thing: “on paper” doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is that the Kindle Fire comes with Amazon’s content ecosystem attached to it. Perhaps more importantly, it will be peddled like no other on the all-important Amazon.com homepage. The specs are secondary in this race at best. The reality is that they will be an afterthought. Or again, the Nook would win.

Next up, Consumer Reports’ take on the iPhone 4S. Hey, this time, they actually like it! And thank god, because as everyone saw the last time around, their damning report really hurt iPhone 4 sales — to the tune of all-time record sales of the device, leading Apple to their most profitable year ever.

More on that in a second. First, it’s important to note that while Consumer Reports liked the device, they didn’t like it as much as a few other Android devices. Why? Specs. Marco Arment ripped this apart last week already, but the thing reads like a bad joke. For example, they love the LG Thrill’s ability to capture stills and videos in 3D. This is one step short of knocking the iPhone 4S because it doesn’t have frickin’ laser beams mounted on the top of the device.

And such comparisons show just how clueless Consumer Reports has become. Last year, they milked “Antennagate” for the pageviews, not realizing that it could actually undermine their own credibility if the device still sold well. “Sold well” ended up being a major understatement. So in effect, they themselves highlighted that no one cares about Consumer Reports anymore. And why not? Because they Consumer Reports largely cares about specs. And consumers do not anymore.

The NPD Group just released their latest numbers. The number one selling smartphone last quarter was the iPhone 4. The over-a-year-old phone which Consumer Reports refused to endorse over a year ago, remember. Meanwhile, the number two phone for the quarter? The two-year-old iPhone 3GS. Does anyone really think that the LG Thrill is going to outsell the iPhone 4S this quarter? What about the Motorola Droid Bionic? Maybe the Samsung Galaxy S II?

Consumer Reports now matters just as much as specs do. Which is to say, not at all.

Finally, we have the Kindle Fire. This is likely to be the final nail in the coffin for the spec. By pretty much all accounts, this is a cheaply-built device. Spec-wise, it’s pretty ho-hum. But it’s a cheaply-built device that comes at a cheap price. That matters more — especially when paired with Amazon.com, as I previously mentioned.

The Kindle Fire outselling the Nook Tablet, even though the latter wins the spec argument, will be one thing. But if sales compete with the gold standard of tablets, the iPad, that will really be something. So far, no other tablet device has come close to remotely competing with the iPad. The Kindle Fire should. They’re clearly different devices — the iPad is a much larger form factor and a price that is more than double the Kindle Fire — but I have no doubt that for many people, the Kindle Fire will be a good enough tablet that they’ll at least wait on an iPad 3 (or iPad 2 HD, or whatever it will be called).

That’s a key thought: “good enough”. None of the initial reviews say that the Kindle Fire is better than the iPad — because it isn’t. It can’t match Apple’s product in either specs or polish. But it is $199 versus $499. That matters far more than any spec. You’re paying for something that’s perhaps half as good as the iPad, but it’s less than half of the cost. There’s at least perceived value there.

And “good enough” also speaks to where we’re at in the broader computing world. I used to get excited for Sunday inserts in the local paper so I could see what new machines were available at Best Buy, Circuit City, or CompUSA. The only thing I cared about were the specs. Which Intel chip did it have? What was the clock speed? How much RAM? How big was the hard drive? How fast was the CD burner? How much cache? Those things mattered.

Then three things happened. First, computers kept going more mainstream — the above listed specs look like gibberish to most people. Second, the web took over and most computers quickly became more than fast enough for the majority of users. Specs became a thing that PC gamers cared about. This contributed to the rebirth of the Mac, because it was never much of a gaming machine throughout the years — especially in the PowerPC years when it was getting smoked by Intel chips (which Apple, of course, eventually adopted). And third, buoyed by the first two things, new platforms arose.

During the PC years, specs also mattered because there was one common dominant force in computing: Microsoft. Because Windows was everywhere, you could fairly reliably gauge the performance of one machine against another. But with the rise of the Mac and more importantly, smartphones and tablets, you can’t as easily stack machines up against one another performance-wise.

My MacBook Air doesn’t have the specs of a brand new HP PC laptop — but it still feels faster. Maybe it’s OS X, or maybe it’s the solid state drive. Point is, consumers don’t and shouldn’t care. They care about which machine will boot faster and which will be easier to navigate. Time to web matters.

And now connected ecosystems matter more than specs. This again helps Apple and Amazon. Does the machine seamlessly integrate with the iTunes ecosystem? Does it have access to the App Store? Can it access the Kindle Bookstore or Amazon’s streaming video service?

We’re starting to see backlash against reviews of products that just do spec-by-spec rundown. Because really, who cares how the device sounds on paper? It’s how it feels that matters. Is the Kindle Fire smooth? Is the Nook Tablet fast? Is the iPad a joy to use? Drew Breunig spoke to these things last week in a post entitled “Device Specs have Become Meaningless“. Dustin Curtis put this more succinctly in two tweets last night:

I agree. Why base reviews around specs when specs don’t matter?

You could certainly argue that Apple is the company which has ushered in this post-spec era. They’ve flourished in recent years despite (and maybe because of) being cagey with most spec information on their newer devices. Does the iPhone 4S have 512 MB or RAM or 1 GB? Apple refuses to say. But who cares? It’s the fastest iPhone yet. (It’s 512 MB, for the record.)

Apple is more traditional with the Mac when it comes to specs (undoubtedly due to legacy), but they still mostly bury that information. Whereas PC sites often trumpet the processor and other specs on the main landing page for their products (HP laptops, for example), Apple instead focuses on natural language descriptions: “The new, faster Macbook Air”.

But the post-spec era works both ways. If the iPad specs don’t matter when going up against the Motorola Xoom, they also don’t matter when going up against the Kindle Fire. What matters is how the device performs, the ecosystem, and the price. In other words, the way you compete in computing now is to do so by focusing on things that human beings understand. On things that matter.