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Tablets were the last Big Thing, but the potential is there for plenty more, if cultural resistance wasn’t so strong
Looking for next big wave of products or services, for something as big as smartphones or, more recently, tablets, we see technology kept in check by culture.
To qualify as a Big Thing these days, a product – or a service, or maybe something hardly more effable than a meme (think social networks) – has to assume a value in the order of $100bn worldwide. The value needn’t be concentrated in a single company; indeed, the more boats that are lifted by the rising tide, the better. The revenue from the Next Big Thing might be divvied up among today’s hardware and software giants or shared with companies that are currently lurking under the radar of industry statistics.
The $100bn number is derived from a look at Apple. For fiscal year 2013 (started 1 October, 2012), the company will weigh about $200bn (£127bn) in revenue. To "move the needle" for just this one company, a Big Thing will need to contribute about $20bn to this total. For Apple execs and shareholders, anything less counts as a mere hobby (which leads to questions about the future of the Mac, but I digress).
Using this gauge, smartphones easily qualify as a Big Thing. As Charles Arthur reports in the Guardian: mobile internet devices ‘will outnumber humans this year‘. Initially offered by Palm, Microsoft, RIM, and Nokia, and then given successive boosts by the iPhone (first with the device itself and then the App Store), it’s no exaggeration to say that the size of the smartphone tsunami surprised everyone. Even the big four incumbents were crushed by the wave: Palm is gone, RIM is in trouble, and Nokia has enslaved itself to Microsoft – which has yet to come up with a viable smartphone OS.
The latest Big Thing is, of course, the "media tablet" (as IDC and Gartner obsessively call the iPad and its competitors). Whatever you call it, regardless of who makes it or which OS it runs, the tablet is a Big Thing that just keeps getting bigger. In less than five years, tablets have attained 10% US market penetration, a milestone that smartphones took eight years to reach. (See also slide nine in Mary Meeker’s now iconic Internets Trends presentation).
So what’s next? Is there a breakthrough technology quietly germinating somewhere? What are the obstacles to a self-amplifying chain of events?
I don’t think the barriers to the Next Big Thing are technical. The ingredients are there, we simply need a master chef to combine them.
This brings us to the broad – and fuzzy – class of what are sometimes called "smart appliances."
The underlying idea is that the devices that surround us – alarm systems, heaters and air conditioners, televisions, stereos, baby monitors, cars, home healthcare devices – should be automated and connected. And we should be able to control them through a common, intuitive UI – in other words, they should speak our language, not the other way around.
This isn’t a new idea. For decades now, we’ve been told the Smart Home is upon us – a fully automated, connected, secured, and energy-saving dwelling. More than 20 years ago, Vint Cerf, an internet progenitor and now Google’s chief internet evangelist, posed with a T-shirt featuring the famous IP on Everything pun:
The internet visionary was, and is, right: every object of importance is destined to have an "IP stack", the hardware, software and communication link required to plug the device into the internet. With every turn of Moore Law’s crank, the hardware becomes smaller, less expensive and power-hungry, and thus makes more room for better software, allowing internet (and local) connectivity to potentially "infect" a growing number of devices. And as devices become smart, they will "teach" each other how to communicate.
Imagine: you take a new remote control out of the box, walk up to a TV and press the "?" key on the remote. A standardised "teach me" message is broadcast, and the TV responds, wirelessly, by sending back a longish XML file that identifies itself and tells the remote the commands it understands:
In a language that computers – and even humans – can process without too much effort, the TV has taught the remote. Here is where you’ll find me, and this is how you can talk to me. The little computer inside the remote munges the file and now the device knows how to control the TV … or the five components of the home theatre, the heater/air conditioner, the alarm system, the car …
Now replace the remote in this scenario with your tablet, with its better UI, processing, and connectivity. Rather than controlling your devices by pushing plastic buttons, you use an app on your tablet – an app that the device delivered just before it sent the XML file. (You can use the default app sent by the device, or wander over to the App Store and pay $5 for a deluxe version with different skins. This is how cottage industries are born.)
So goes the lovely theory … but in reality we see so-called Smart TVs with internet connections but mediocre UI; or less-smart TVs that are still bound to barely intelligent set-top boxes, with their Trabant-grade user experience. And we control them through multi-function "universal" remotes that cost as much as a smartphone, but do less and do it worse.
The technological building blocks exist in abundance. There is plenty of open source software available to help the remote (or your tablet) digest the This is how to Talk to Me file from the TV.
Even in our deliberately simplified example, there seems to be no interest in coming up with a simple, open (yes, that word, again) standard to help appliances tell the rest of the world how to control them. It wouldn’t add much to the cost of the device and certainly wouldn’t require hiring rocket scientists. In other words, the obstacles are neither economical nor technical; they’re cultural, they’re keeping the Machine to Machine (M2M) revolution in check.
We’ve seen a similar sort of cultural resistance when we consider à la carte, app-based channels on the mythical "iTV", whether from Apple, Google, or anyone else. Users would love to pick and choose individual shows and have them delivered through applications rather than through deaf-and-dumb multicast streams. App-ification of TV content would provide other "organic" features: the ability to rewind a live broadcast (without a DVR), easy searches through programme archives, access to user forums and behind-the-scenes commentary …
The technology and design already exist, as the wonderful 60 Minutes iPad app demonstrates:
Nice, easy, technically feasible yesterday … but it’s impossible today and will almost certainly continue to be impossible for the near future (I first typed nerd future, a neat typo).
Because carriers won’t allow it. They’re terrified of becoming dumb pipes (the link refers to mobile carriers, but the idea also applies to cable and satellite providers). Carriers force us to buy bundles of channels that they package and sell in a tiered, take-it-or-leave it pricing scheme. True, there is VOD (Video on Demand), where we can buy and view individual movies or premium sporting events, but a pervasive news-stand model where we only pay for what we consume is still far away.
The content owners – movie studios and TV networks – don’t like the news-stand model either. They go by the old Hollywood saying: content is king, but distribution is King Kong. iTunes made an impression: movie and TV studios don’t want to let Google, Apple, Netflix, or Amazon run the table the way Apple did with iTunes and AT&T. (That AT&T derived lasting benefits in higher ARPU and market share doesn’t seem to alleviate the content providers’ fears.)
How can this change and, as a result, unlock one or two Big Things? To retread a famous two-part Buddhist joke, change is a mysterious thing. Telling people what they ought to do doesn’t always work. Still, two thoughts come to mind.
First, the tablet. We, tech people have always known the tablet was the right thing to do, and we tried for 30 years without much success. Three years ago, Chef Jobs grabbed the ingredients that had been available to all and, this time, the tablet genre "took". Now, perhaps, the tablet will take its place as an ingredient in a yet grander scheme.
Second, go to an aquarium and watch a school of fish. They move in concert and suddenly turn for no apparent reason. Somewhere inside the school there must have been a "lead fish" that caused the change of direction. Perhaps the fish didn’t even realise he was "The One" destined to trigger the turn.
Who’s going to be our industry’s fish, big or small, that precipitates a cultural change unlocking the potential of existing technologies and gives rise to the next $100bn opportunity?