Enough Already With The LapPhablet Straddle -- The Future Is About Specialized Devices

Mature markets thrive because of specialization, not in spite of it. Think of shoes. How many pairs do you own? How many do you really need? Or kitchen pots. How many pots do you own? How many do you need? Or cars. How many different types are out there? How many do we really need?

The answer is, as many as they want to make. We want specialty shoes because there's a real difference between road biking shoes and mountain biking shoes. Between brown shoes and cordovan shoes and black shoes. Between dress shoes and party shoes. And those differences matter. Riding 35 miles in your dress shoes makes no sense.

And we want the best pot for the polenta or risotto or Bolognese we're making. We want the car that best suits the way we drive and live and schlep stuff. We want the right tool for the job. The same is true for computers or tablets or smartphones. We want the right tool for the job.

Source: Hallomall.com

When you show me a spork or a rubber soled dress shoe or an El Camino, I think, "that's neither spoon nor fork, neither practical nor dressy, neither car nor truck." So when you show me Windows 8 on the new Dell XPS 12, I think spork, not specialized. It's a straddle. And straddles don't win.

The future of devices (call it post-PC if you like; I just think of it as the right tool for the job) is specialized: the right tool for the job, and a steady evolution to the right tool. The logic is simple:

  • A specialized device is just better for the specific thing you are trying to do. And if you find yourself pushing the boundaries of what the device can do, you'll just buy a different device, or perhaps accessorize it to suit.
  • You can afford to buy the devices you want. When a computer cost more than a car (my new PC XT cost more than my new Dodge Colt in 1984), you could only afford one. But now that they cost less than a nice meal out for two, cost is not usually a barrier to the people reading this blog.

People will gravitate towards the devices that best suit the way they live and work, and that means they will buy specialized products that fit their particular needs. And that means vendors will define and build for every market nook and cranny they can find. Sure, some people will buy devices that straddle a PC and tablet or tablet and phone or TV and game table. After all, people do buy sporks. And there's an active market for old El Caminos. But if the history of markets is any predictor, we'll see vendors making specialized products that fit a niche and most people buying the specialized products that best suit their needs.

So while it's great to see vendors build things like 18" tablets or touchscreen computers to test the waters, it's also important to evaluate these things based on whether they are the right tool for the job. And if somebody tries to sell you a spork, just say no.


Where you may think spork

Where you may think spork others may think Swiss Army knife.

The second screen industry perceives huge benefits in enabling devices to act as TV remote controls - even though a specialised device has long existed for this function.

Would you buy a phone or tablet in the future without a built in camera?

Often the right tool is the one that is closest to hand, even if it means trying to use the end of a spork as a screwdriver.

Good point, but then again . . .

Without getting too deep into the jack of all trades, master of none argument, I think we can all agree that straddles are never a good predictor of success in a market. It doesn't mean we won't have them or that people won't buy them (the spork market appears to be in full flower if a quick search is any indication). It just means that people are sacrificing something when they don't own the right tool for the job.

One person's straddle is another person's...

Saddle? Some of these devices that seem to span multiple categories might just be the perfect specialized device for a specific task. I for one am a big fan of the spork for backpacking. I'm not going to take a full set of silverware and my spork gets the job done -- all in one. But then, I have a specialized spork with a knife-like handle -- a sporf.

Didn't smartphones start as jacks of all trades?

This is definitely an interesting argument. It does make me think, though, that in many technology categories, we see consolidation of capabilities. For example, we saw the social software market go from many discrete wiki, RSS, social networking and blogging vendors to a few social platform vendors that bundle these capabilities (and more!) for clients.

If we think about the history of the grandfather of smartphones -- BlackBerrys -- they started as email devices. Into that email device, they then pulled in the capabilities of the specialized PDA and the specialized mobile phone to create what we were calling "combination devices" circa 2005. And if I remember the complaints about BlackBerrys then, it was that they were great email machines, but terrible phones. But as people looked to streamline the number of devices they carried, the combination of tools BlackBerrys provide became increasingly appealing.

So, to Jennifer's point, over time, maybe something like a phablet will become appealing to a wide group of people because its all-in-one nature is indeed the right device at the right time.

Your logic holds its own answer

If a multi-purpose device wins because it is multi-purpose, then that defines its specialization: to serve multiple purposes in s single device.

Cameras in phones, for example, might cause you to leave the point and shoot at home, but if you need the power of an SLR, you'll carry that, too.

Similarly, if LapPhablets (or sporfes for that matter) take off, it will be because the market's view of "specialty device" is different from mine. That's okay. I don't pretend to represent the market, just analysis based on data. So far, specialty devices are winning.

Guess I'll wait to see if the dedicated devices -- ultrabook, tablet, and phone -- dominate or if one of those categories fades away in favor of a LapPhablet.

The other example used

The other example used here was the "El Camino" - otherwise known in Australia as the "Ute" (an abbreviation of utility). The Ute has not only been a massive hit in Australia, it has also defined both our car industry and our culture. So the issue for me is not really about generalized vs specialized products as such. After all, computers themselves are *all* a form of generalized device. The issue for me is simply about the size of the addressable market and timing. There's some great examples of "spanning technologies" as they're sometimes called in all kinds of industries like mining, manufacturing, healthcare etc. They may have small markets, but as TJ points out, being a hybrid sometimes does make sense.

Again, the question for me is simply a matter of market size and timing. The real trick is to manufacture and market so that you either closely follow a developing market or narrowly lead a market. Too far out in front of demand in manufacturing and you've wasted your money. Too far behind and you've lost opportunity.

So while phablets and lap-phlets may not ever become mainstream, they will still find a "viable" market - no matter how small. It's ultimately whether the vendors have their sizing and timing right.

But I do have to laugh when I see all the TV and internet ads at the moment trying to drive up demand for products that just don't make any sense to the vast majority of people and organisations. I can't help but think "you're wasting your time...and somebody else's money..."

Speciality devices are not winning

I still disagree with your analysis. Speciality devices are not winning. Consider personal navigation devices (PNDs) such as those produced by TomTom and Garmin. The market for their specialised devices has tanked since it became possible to add the functionality smartphones. Specialisation is a luxury; be it the perfect sports shoe or a full range of Le Creuset cookware.

Thanks Nicholas. My point and

Thanks Nicholas. My point and analysis was actually that it's not about "winning". E.g., for every TomTom and Garmin example there's other counter examples - like the move from all-in-one home entertainment units from the 1950's and '60's...to component hi-fi in the 70's and 80's...to the iPod and iTunes in the 2000's. Compared to the all-purpose home entertainment devices in the 50's and 60's, what we have now is clearly specialisation. Most people would say (rightly or wrongly) that Apple is now "winning". Another counter point would be that Microsoft led the market in tablet devices in the early 2000's - but they clearly didn't "win". That's exactly why my point is more around market sizing and timing than whether a product is specialised or generalised or not. In fact, most of that becomes an issue of fashion as time goes by anyway.

Hope this helps!