Why 2014 Won't Be Like 1984

I've heard a lot of noise recently about these new fangled smartphones and tablets not replacing 'real computers', especially since the announcement of many new tablet products, including the HP TouchPad. That they are just expensive FaceBook machines. I've also heard people say that there's no room in the market for more devices: iOS and Android will take up the market and leave nothing for anyone else. It'll be just like the PC wars again!

Well... no. We definitely are going to see a huge shift in the industry over the next couple of years, but there will not be just one or two OSes controlling the market. And laptops won't be obliterated by tablets any more than TV destroyed the movies and radio. We won't see Mac vs PC again, or desktops vs Apple IIs. 2014 won't be like 1984.

First a disclaimer. These are my opinions, not the opinions of my team or employer. I work in Developer Relations. I have no knowledge of long term HP strategy, nor do I have any influence on it. This is simply the ramblings of an long time computing observer.

Tablets are no substitute for 'real' computers

Let's tackle these issues separately. First the claims: 'tablets suck for real work', or 'I would never use one. They are too limiting', or 'They are only for content consumption'. What are we talking about?

By tablet computers I mean things like the TouchPad or the iPad. These are devices which run a non-general purpose OS. There is no exposed filesystem. Apps are sandboxed and safe. A PC is a desktop or laptop running a general purpose OS like Windows, Mac OSX, or full Linux distros. Regardless of the form factor (touch vs keyboard), these are fundamentally different kinds of devices. Now the claims:

Tablets are too limited compared to a real computer. Yes the current generation of hardware is limiting, but it's going to get better; and fast. My top of the line computer less than 10 years ago had a 400mhz processor with 64MB of RAM, no GPU, and 8 GB of slow disk storage. Pretty much all tablet computers far exceed this already, and will soon support printing, directly controlling hardware in your house, and be first class citizens of the network (assuming Apple ever lets you jettison iTunes from your 'real' computer). They will all get better, and quickly. Especially when there is competition.

Tablets suck for real work: Yes, they are primarily designed for content consumption and tasks that require typing a paragraph or less. But guess what: that's a lot of stuff. In fact that's what 90% of people do 90% of the time on their computers. Most people don't write more than a paragraph at a time on their real computers. Most people surf the web, check Facebook, place games, pay their bills, and write a few short emails. A tablet device that can do 90% of what they need with less fuss and less cost is a big deal. A really big deal. Half of people could never learn to drive before the automatic transmission was invented. Yes, it's that big of a deal.

'I would never use one. They are too limiting'. That's very true. If you get nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember one thing:

They aren't built for you!

These things are built for the 90% of people who don't need everything a full PC does. By definition, if you are reading this blog, then these things aren't built for you. You are a programmer or writer or artist. You need a 'real' computer. In 10 years (probably far less), you will own a tablet computer, but it won't be your only computer.

In ten years I will still have a laptop with a real keyboard, possibly a disk drive, and most certainly an exposed filesystem with regular installable apps. It will still have a command line. (bash4eva!) I'll certainly use a tablet computer as well, but it won't be my only computer. However, for 90% of people, the tablet will do everything they need. It's built for them, not us.

OS Wars

Now that we have the audience for a tablet out of the way, lets look at the OS wars. There's a lot of talk that we'll have just iOS and Android. That they have an insurmountable lead. That the market wants one boutique option and one mass market indistinguishable option, just like MacOS and Windows.

I really don't think this is the case. I don't think any OS will have more than 25% market share in 10 years. Despite the similarities, the mobile OS market is very different than the PC market. Why? Well, let's compare the world of 1984 with the world of 2011.

  • Hardware: In 80s and early 90s you bought a PC in a computer store or maybe a department store like Sears. In 2011 you buy a phone in a cellphone carrier store, or on the web. You buy a tablet computer in a cellphone store or a mass market retailer like Target. These stores really didn't exist 30 years ago. Getting distribution for a device is very different now.
  • Apps: In 1984 you bought apps on floppy disks, wrapped in boxes, sitting on a shelf in a computer store. Or maybe Sears and Toys'R'Us (for games at least). There were no 'app stores'. Today, mobile apps are almost always bought in a store provided by the mobile platform itself. It doesn't matter if a retail location wants to carry your apps or not. No one has to fight over physical shelf space. The economics are fundamentally different.
  • Advertising: In 1984 computers were mainly advertised in computer magazines and newspapers. Remember those? Those things that no one my age reads anymore? (I'm 35 by the way.) Now we read and shop online. Or on our phones. Or get recommendations from friends on Twitter. And mobile devices are advertised on television. Advertising has changed. People find out about products in fundamentally different ways.
  • Compatibility: In 1984 software compatibility mattered. Software was hard to write, required huge lead times, couldn't be easily updated, and speed was of the utmost importance. Only the biggest apps would be on more than one platform, so getting apps on your OS was a big deal. IBM went to a lot of trouble making OS/2 Warp work with Windows 3.1 apps, for the sake of compatibility. Apple created expensive Apple II plugin boards for the Mac, all for the sake of app compatibility. Today most of the apps we run are backed by platform independent web services. Only the client app is different. And even that is easier thanks to open standards, modern programming languages, and the web. webOS has smaller market share than iOS and Android, but we still have Facebook, AngryBirds, and about 2 million Twitter apps. And you can view all the same websites. Compatibility simply isn't an issue anymore.

The economics of mobile operating systems are fundamentally different than the desktop wars of olde. To say we are in for a repeat of Mac vs Win is like saying the two world wars were identical because they both involved Germany and had the word 'World' in their names. Well the world has changed.

I think there will not be any single OS winner. Instead it will be more like cars. Many different models and vendors to cater to different tastes. They each have their own colors, addons, and spare parts; but they all drive on the same roads (the internet) and all take the same gas (webservices). 2014 simply won't be like 1984. And that's a very good thing.

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Posted February 22nd, 2011

Tagged: essays rant