Are we headed into an era of "dumb tech?"


Cisco bought Flip Video. The Peek e-mail device is outselling some smartphones and launching a new version. The wi-fi-enabled media player is fighting it out with the TV for precedence in the living room and netbooks are beating down desktops at school and in the den. Are we entering an era of simple, cheap, and cool?

After a decade of unparalleled one-upmanship – the gigahertz race, the megapixel race, the storage race – we are now hitting a wall. The devices we own are small enough, fast enough, and hold enough data to suit us now until 2012, thank you, so we’ll sit this next iteration of the Intel Xaphod chip out, thank you.

I’ll admit I missed the Flip/Peek/netbook boat but once it came into dock, disembarked its passengers, and I read about its contents in the shipping news I finally figured out what was going on. We are essentially seeing the era of web services made flesh where thin clients take content and broadcast it instantly. And the web guys love it. Take Flip, for example. I was talking to a buddy at Cisco this weekend and he said that Cisco, the heavy-duty switch and server side of Cisco, loves blogs, video sharing, and the like. The more bandwidth wasted on pictures of Chet faux-kissing a hottie the better simply because it requires a heavier network backbone. Therefore, someone like Flip is a perfect testbed for streaming video as well as a nice cash cow.

Even companies like Vizio came out of left field. While everyone else was worried about LCD vs. Plasma, Vizio tore the price of a regular TV down by 50 percent. Imagine if I told you maybe two years ago that a 42-inch LCD HD TV would cost about $700. You’d put me in the loony bin! Even Eye-Fi and Chumby understand what’s going on – you make something small, cool, and very specific and the world will beat a path to your door.

So where does that leave the CE industry? Well, it’s now a race to the bottom. Video cameras that once cost $500 will now cost about $200. Digital cameras, real ones, are approaching the $100 mark. TVs will soon drop below the $500 mark for lower-end models. And, more importantly, devices like the Peek and the Flip point to a consumer focused on the creation of web content. Whereas our parents wanted to “store” information – in the form of slides, records, tapes, and the like – this generation wants to “dump” information onto YouTube, Facebook, and the cloud. This difference is important. Previously, the old rules of media applied — in a nutshell they can be summarized by that old chestnut “The medium is the message.” The message, formerly vacation snapshots or the latest Bing Crosby, was defined by the medium onto which it was impressed. Now, the message is a free-floating, amorphous thing, and the less that gets between the consumer and the message the better — hence tools that are limited in scope and function (and price) that “just work.”

The concept of dumb tech isn’t a negative thing. It is the understanding that instead of power, people want ease-of-use. Instead of the chaotic jumble of Symbian or Windows Mobile we are enamoured by shiny buttons on the iPhone and the Pre. Instead of a 12-megapixel DSLR, most of us are happy with a camera that takes an OK picture as soon as everyone in the frame is smiling. Instead of a state-of-the-art laptop we’re happy with a lumpen mini-book running Linux. Why? Because it gets the job done more than admirably.

Chalk it up to a bad economy if you want, but I think this is a backlash. For years we’ve been saddled with wonky hardware with 400-page manuals and smartphones that could open VNC connections with NASA but couldn’t save your pictures to Flickr. The tide has turned, friends, and the dumb stuff is winning.