Walking around CES this week it’s easy to see the future: just look at the components being sold in the nether regions of the show. These include specific things – Bluetooth powered electrical cords, for example – and “pieces” like smaller motherboards, cases, and materials. When planning a launch line-up, major manufacturers peruse catalogs of potential hardware and materials solutions to decide what to create next, then task their hardware designers to choose the proper parts in order to build in the features that meet their initial requirement. Does this TV need a 64-inch LED backlit screen? Four HDMI ports? A blue bezel? Designers figure out which parts fit where and place their assembly order with a factory. It’s been like this for decades.
When I write that Samsung could be the next Apple, I meant that Samsung seems to have finally bucked this trend, at least in part. The problem with the above shop-design-build process is that there is little synergy among various business units. The mobile guys have a certain menu from which to pick while the TV guys have a different menu. The phone OS has always been different than the TV “OS” (really UI, but TVs need a little code in them). Work may be duplicated multiple times, even from year to year.
Trade dress (the case and “looks” of a device) aside, most hardware is the same. A TV is a TV is a TV just as a phone is a phone is a phone. Sure there are special audio and video design issues and special tweaks manufacturers do to maintain their own levels of quality, but, to paraphrase my uncle, it all comes out of the same pipe.
So the real differentiator, the real money maker, is ecosystem and consumer lock-in.
For years, we gadget bloggers have had a common refrain: lock a bunch of developers in a room and make them build a great product. Ignore everything that came before and everything that will come after. Make something that works great, looks great, and matches consumer expectations and surpasses them.
The problem is that this model does now allow for the standard lock-step design process. It’s a complete anathema to the standard iteration model of product design and, as such, is very expensive and resource intensive.
But a few things are happening that are changing this. First, hardware is becoming easier to build. Kickstarter, for example, shows us that one-off manufacturing isn’t as hard as it sounds while companies like Apple have shown that ecosystem matters more than iterative improvements. If it all works together, you’ll see more hardware.
Manufacturers have known this for a long time yet they never truly wanted to pay the cash required to pull off a real ecosystem. It was always easier just to say “Me too” instead of “Me first.”
What seems to be happening – and discussions I’ve had bear this out – is that R&D investment is up and the ecosystem requirement is finally important. A million developers in front of a million keyboards will eventually build something that works correctly. Samsung, with their coffers of Galaxy Cash, are in the right place to attempt this and I think they pulled it off (we shall, however, have to see).
In the end these developers may be forced to go back to the iteration model. But once you have an ecosystem, it’s not hard to keep it going. It’s hard to improve it (witness the overwhelming “Meh” of iCloud) but it’s easy to keep it going once it’s in place.
It seems that 2012 is finally the year that hardware manufacturers understand lock-in. As we approach an era of connected devices, the benefits will be clear: easier content sharing, better device interaction, and improved remote control. What we lose, however, is the single-purpose computing device and, to be honest, I’m fine with that.