On magic and tides

Posted: 01.29.13

In 1998 Steve Jobs was asked, how can you compete in the PC business? What’s your strategy? He smiled and said, “Wait for the next big thing.” Hardly seems like much of a plan, and it is exactly what RIM and Nokia didn’t do, and look at them.

Sometimes companies try to create the next big thing like Intel did with netbooks, Apple did with Newton, and various others did with S3D—when it’s not right, it’s just not right, and the consumers always vote with their checkbooks.

There was no pent-up demand for tablets. No one had measured consumers’ desires and aspirations and discovered consumers wanted tablets. Even Apple didn’t do it. Apple got incredibly lucky—magic happened.

Apple’s iPad and all the clones of it are filling a need no one knew existed; the “I-didn’t-know-I-needed-it-but-now-I-have-to-have-it” syndrome. That’s usually reserved for fad items like boom boxes, and wearing your shirt outside your pants—cool today, stupid tomorrow.

The tablet is different, and it has redefined several markets such as PCs (desktop and notebooks), game consoles (handheld and stationary), and TV—there may be more such as medical and professional graphics.

The tablet, regardless of its processor or OS type, has altered the once-dynamic PC business for all time, and it has changed perceptions, possibilities, and procedures or policies. Whereas the PC used to be used for everything, mostly because it could and it was the only choice, we are now entering the age of specialization, and the PC will be just a thing, like a motorcycle is a transportation thing and a truck is a transportation thing. The tide has changed.

Functions and activities like video watching, web searching, and light-weight email, even some text writing, have moved to the tablet. The PC still handles the big spreadsheets, and Word files, and a lot of forms-based data entry. And gaming has gone from bifurcation to trifurcation. Casual games moved to the tablet, graphics and proc­essor-intensive AAA games stayed on the PC, and truncated versions of those games stayed on consoles. The consoles are struggling to be the video, music, and game server in your living room. The PC, if it ever made it to the living room, has been moved out and replaced with a tablet, and the tablet will not spend much if any time in the PC room.  

Making magic?

Nvidia sensed this re-arrangement of the deck chairs and brought out what it’s calling Project Shield (see story, p. 1). It doesn’t fit into any of the above categories, it competes with all them, and it sometimes cooperates with one of them. Is this the next big thing? Will this be magic? Will Project Shield change the tide? I think it will, to a certain extent. Nvidia says it’s one more of your Android devices, which contradicts another story—that it’s not “just” another Android device, it’s a totally new and different device. But Nvidia is clever and knows that to introduce something new you have to make it look like something old, something familiar. The Project Shield device does look familiar, like a console game controller. As Tony Tamasi, Nvidia’s SVP of content and technology (and one of the co-developers of Project Shield), told me, the device is a well known and defined human interface device—HID—with standard locations of analog joysticks, trigger buttons, and the four-button star pattern—no learning curve involved, like a car.

So it now gives us a seventh gaming device. Seven? Yes: handheld console, stationary console, PC (desktop and notebook), tablet, smartphone, arcade, and now Project Shield. How can you stand out if you’re one of seven? The answer is because of magic. The same kind of magic Jobs used when he brought out the iPhone with a touch screen—a design IBM introduced in 1992 that failed. Even though IBM’s Simon Personal Communicator did every­thing the iPhone does (except play MP3s and have a store behind it), consumers couldn’t grok it and didn’t embrace it—Simon was neither magic nor a tide changer, it was just weird. Project Shield will be different, which is a bit annoying to me because it totally screws up my long-standing forecast that Apple’s next big thing would be a gaming machine. Looks like Nvidia beat them to it. PFM—pure freaken magic.