It’s really a rather curious thing that the most popular devices in the world right now are, arguably at least, the best designed. Not to cheerlead for Apple, but we can all agree that whatever their faults, the original iPhone and the iPhone 4 (from which the slightly disproportionate 5 has descended) are impressive examples of one-upping the competition in both material and industrial design.
In a way, it’s a bit like if the most popular car in the world were a Lamborghini instead of a mass-market compact. Except, of course, that part of the draw of a Lamborghini is exclusivity. If everyone owned Lamborghinis, they would likely be seen as pedestrian. That’s the paradox of the iPhone’s success — high design coexisting with ubiquity.
But the lustre of the iPhone is diminishing, partly because of a lack of imagination on Apple’s part, and partly because of three other factors.
First, there is a massive and continuing migration onto smartphone platforms in places where the iPhone has little cachet. That the iPhone could be considered a Western affectation is potentially a huge block to uptake in expanding markets like India and China. This is a complicated, unpredictable, global economic thing and not at all what I wanted to talk about, but there it is.
Second, mass manufacturers of poorly-made widgets, which have sold hundreds of millions for decades, are slowly becoming aware of the necessities and realities of a “premium” product, which is another name for something that isn’t garbage. So you have the likes of the latest Nokia and HTC devices. The movement away from disposable electronics is a slow and strange process, and is also not exactly what I want to discuss, though it’s part of it.
Third is the incredible improvement in decentralized product creation. It’s things like the Ouya on Kickstarter, the Shine on Indiegogo, and a hundred other devices and pieces of kit. These are made possible by the wide availability of design and prototyping equipment, and the ability to insert themselves into a process that was once uncomeatable (I am bringing this word back).
What the teams do is abstract only the portion of the productization process that is necessary for their purposes. Previously something like a mobile phone could only be created by a large, vertically-integrated company like Samsung. And really, that’s still true. A Samsung-like entity is necessary for the creation of a mobile phone. So is a Hon Hai, and an aluminum mill, and a shipping company, and an oil refiner… the list, like the minimum viable society in Plato’s Republic, quickly grows when you consider everything that’s involved in making and delivering a product.
There’s no way a Kickstarter project is going to create everything from scratch. But what they can do is cherry-pick from a list of requirements the items that they think they can improve on. You can’t remove Sony from the equation if you want image sensors, but that doesn’t mean Sony has to make the camera. Or Nikon, or Apple, or whoever.
To get to the point: When you remove the aged, inefficient, and rather inherently unhip design departments of the big companies, like Sony and Samsung, and put their tools in the hands of talented and motivated individuals or groups, you change the landscape immensely.
What a small team has is not just the singularity of vision to create a unique and desirable product, but the choice to do things on whatever scale they choose. This is important. It costs millions — hundreds of millions — for a large company to launch a device. They produce five million to start and lock up entire factories for months at a time, saving fractions of pennies per unit to maximize margins. They’re like tech industry Glamazons: they won’t get out of bed for less than a $100 million a quarter.
Meanwhile, the consumer class has been turned into a creative class, and you have teams on Kickstarter whose goal in life is to sell a thousand devices to a niche audience who will pay through the nose for anything made with them in mind. Furthermore, to bring things back around, such devices have the added benefit of exclusivity. The long tail (and haute couture) is coming to manufacturing with a vengeance.
Fans of William Gibson will have already intuited where I’m headed. In Idoru, one of the characters has a highly custom and personalized computer made by a group called Sandbenders. “They melt old cans they dig up on the beach and cast it in sand molds. These panels are micarta. That’s linen with this resin in it,” she says.
Gibson’s remarkable prescience in these matters is proved once again. Years ago, when Idoru came out, such a device was very much a fantasy — how could some beach tribe make a computer? Today, it’s a business model, albeit with some significant restrictions resulting from the monopolies of a few large companies on things like processors and display modules. Ten people can now reach an audience of ten million, and refine from that an ultra-concentrated, self-selecting market of ten thousand. And by cutting out the middle man, they can imitate the long-tail success of small businesses selling via eBay or Kindle. The increasing mobility of currency will only accelerate this process.
All these factors amount to a powder keg under the feet of the companies that make and sell items on the scale of millions. A lot has to happen before Sandbenders is possible, and it’s not like Sony and Apple will suddenly lose all their business to a legion of basement-dwellers cooking up custom phones in Maya. Nevertheless, we’re approaching one of those points that Apple has been so good at exploiting, but to which it is now (as an iconic and ubiquitous brand) vulnerable. The point when people realize what they want, and find that no one is providing it.
The fact is that the enormous growth in consumer numbers and diversity has not been matched with a corresponding growth in product diversity. The illusion of choice presented by a handful of companies offering one-size-fits-all options is being exposed for what it is, as devices and services become increasingly personal.
Unimaginative offerings devised to fit the needs of millions, offered by an aristocratic class of companies who have only each other for competition. How long can it last? History suggests their way of doing things must adapt or die. We don’t really care which.
[image: The Hamlet - The Forge]