In math, an inflection point occurs where the shape of a curve changes in a fundamental but often subtle way. In particular, it can be the point at which acceleration becomes positive and the curve starts rising at an increasing rate. It seems to me that the tech industry has come to an inflection point. After years of expecting consumers to put up with devices whose complexity baffled the vast majority of users, we are seeing rapid movement toward radical simplification.
The iPhone, of course, is the poster child of this movement. It began with the iPhone, which brilliantly answered the question of “Why do I need a smartphone?” for millions of consumers who had resisted the charms of Palms, BlackBerrys, and Windows Mobile. Amazon’s Kindle was another step in this direction, despite it being disparaged by techies because it only does one thing. It may be simple-minded, but your grandmother can figure out how to buy a book online using it.
The next step, and it is a big one, is the introduction of the iPad, which is likely to make many ask “Why do I need a PC?” That’s a question that really hasn’t been asked seriously in about 15 years and it is one that ought to shake the hardware and software industries to their cores.
Many of the criticisms of the iPad miss the point. Techies want it to have USB ports for the attachment of external devices and a file system for local storage of data. The want a far broader availability of software than Apple is likely to approve. I hope for their sakes that there is a way to jailbreak the iPad, iPhone style, so they can have their fun. But their fact that the iPad isn’t a PC, that it offers constrained choices in the service of its simplicity, that I think will make it a hit.
Apple is the most advanced in understanding the need for simplicity, but it is hardly alone. Microsoft, after years of trying to sell smartphones that tried to cram Windows onto a handheld device, is going the route of radical simplification with the forthcoming Windows Phone 7. Despite the name, WP7, seems inspired more by the Xbox and the Zune HD (a critical, if not a commercial, success.)
Moving closer to traditional computers, we are starting to see the introduction of a new breed of mini-notebooks called smartbooks, such as the Lenovo Skylight introduced at CES . Unlike netbooks, which are just small, cheap laptops running standard PC software (usually Windows), netbooks run software stripped down to the essentials, mostly Web-based applications, and keep their data n the cloud. In concept, if not design, smartbooks resemble the iPad more closely than either resembles a conventional PC. And Microsoft is working on a dual-screen, booklike device codenamed Courier that is dramatically different from anything on the market or announced. Meanwhile, there’s a proliferation of tablets, slates, and e-book readers of all shapes and sides, from companies including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Notion Ink, Plastic Logic, and many others.
One reason that we are only now seeing this move to much simpler devices is that simplicity is hard. A decade ago, a number of companies tried to make much simpler “Internet appliances” as an alternative to the PC. The problem is that they didn’t do the few things they focused on at all well and today’s notion of cloud computing, which one way or another is central to all these simplified devices, couldn’t exist in a world that still depended mainly on dial-up for network access.
Today we are very close to the point where reasonably fast wireless network access is truly ubiquitous. It;s still not fast enough or pervasive enough, but it is getting there. At the same time, new system-on-a-chip processors like NVIDIA’s Tegra 2, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, and perhaps Intel’s forthcoming Moorestown, offer a huge boost in performance together with long battery life. Capacitive touch screens and well-designed touch-based user interfaces makes these new devices far more intuitive to use. (It’s worth noting that neither the keyboard, which at least has the virtue of decades of familiarity, nor the mouse are analogous to anything in the natural world. But what could be more natural than manipulating an object on a screen by touching it?)
All of these factors are combining to create a point of inflection for personal computing. This one will be very good for consumers, and for the technology providers that get it.