Retail appliances

I had occasion after the turkey dinner yesterday to muse a little on computers and software in the retail channel. My brother-in-law-to-be was waxing lyrical about the TiVo he’d just bought, and rather than restrict my thoughts to just that device, I started thinking about the retail channel as a whole for these computer and software driven one-use devices.

First, we have the TiVo, essentially a Linux box with some TV hardware, a big hard disk, and some fancy software. It’s certainly a one-use device: it "merely" enables you to record TV programs and play them back. (I’m deliberately minimizing discussion of the features of TiVo here; my intent is not to market it to you.) Despite the fact that it’s a pretty standard PC, there’s been no attempt to make it available for other uses. And, there are other set-top boxes out there that perform the same kind of function, some better than others, some with extra features, all based on PC hardware as far as I know.

Second, we have the Apple iPod. A tiny computer with a hard disk that is designed for one thing and one thing only: playing digital music. The latest version is a color device and doubles as a digital photo album. But why is an iPod so popular when modern PDAs can also play music?

Third, we have the Xbox and the other game-playing consoles. A device that can only be used to play games (although, it must be noted, many people have hacked the Xbox, thereby enabling it to do other things). Compare that to a standard PC, which can also play games, but has so many other uses as well.

Fourth: cell phones. These are a great appliance, although they are starting to become more and more flexible in the sense that their OSes are opening up to other software. But as they become more flexible, we are in a great danger than their optimized-for-phones keypad will disappear (for a touch screen, perhaps), or grow (with extra buttons).

Last, there’s calculators. To be honest, a calculator’s functionality, including graphics, could be done equally well with a PDA. (On my Clie, I use a programmable RPN calculator app called MathU Pro that mimics HP calculators.) But calculators are still being designed and sold.

My thought here is why do these appliances or one-use devices fare so well? After all there is nothing more flexible, more able to have multiple uses than a standard PC or PDA. I think it has to do with that very flexibility. We want our appliances to be designed for their stated purpose. We don’t want the appliance to be flexible, because with flexibility comes the inevitable blurring of functionality and increased complexity. Imagine if the iPod used a Palm-like handwriting recognition engine with a touch-sensitive screen. It could then possibly be used for far more than just playing music. But it would lose that impressive geared-for-one-purpose-and-do-it-well user interface.

Another benefit of appliances is that they seldom crash. There’s no other, possibly rogue, software running on these machines. Their operating system is optimized for one purpose. It used to make me laugh when I worked in Las Vegas, walking down the strip and seeing the giant displays outside the Paris casino showing a Windows 98 blue screen. Using a PC to drive these displays seems innocuous enough, no? Imagine how much better they would run if there were an appliance that did the same job.

So I can see appliances continuing to have a great market share compared to "special" software on a standard PC that mimics the appliance’s function. And I can foresee that Linux will have a big role here: it’s easier to produce a specialized OS for a device with Linux than anything else.

I realize that Microsoft is trying with Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile to target these appliance markets, but their big problem is that it’s the hardware manufacturers who dictate the agenda here. Suppose, for example, that someone, HP say, were to provide a photo printer with a photo editing function. You slip your camera’s memory card into the printer, and through a tuned-to-photo-editing user interface you can tweak the contrast, brightness, and color balance of the photos and remove red-eye and crop the image and all that fun stuff before printing. Do you think that would be a big seller? Do you think it would be running Windows under the hood? To me the answers are yes and no.

Long live the appliance! Now, how do I get a piece of the action?

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