Yesterday, San Jose Mercury News columnist Chris O’Brien wrote:
“Gadget-hungry consumers seem to have finally reached the saturation point. After exploding for three decades, the average number of devices owned by U.S. households has hit a plateau and is expected to decline in the coming years.”
Echoing those sentiments on the same day in his CES trip wrap up, industry analyst Dan Nenni wrote:
“Personally, I go to CES every year to try and guess what new innovative technology will drive future semiconductor design and manufacturing. Last year I bet on tablets and lost. This year there was really nothing to bet on.”
Nenni says he saw nothing more than upgrades to existing products (mobile phone handsets, TVs, tablets, and ultralight notebook computers).
What’s going on? I think O’Brien captures the idea well when he writes:
“For years, people have been replacing analog devices like a Walkman with digital equivalents like an iPod, while adding new categories like digital cameras and digital video recorders. They were also increasing the number of TVs and cellphones they owned.
Even the most wired homes can hold only so much, though, and even the most connected person can use only so many gadgets. But more important, these devices now perform multiple functions. A smartphone, for instance, is now your MP3 player, digital video and still camera, and personal digital assistant, as well as a phone. One device can replace five.”
What that means, possibly, is that it’s becoming harder and harder to introduce an entirely new category of device that will trigger consumers’ equipment lust. However, Apple succeeded a few years ago when it introduced an entirely new gadget category with the iPad. The following year, more than 100 tablet makers jumped on the bandwagon. The market has thinned considerably since then, but the category is now firmly established and dominated by Apple, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a few others. Personally, I think tablets succeed because they are portable, they provide an excellent form factor for media consumption, and the most successful examples plug the consumer into a font of media to purchase with very little effort.
So where do designers turn for differentiation? One direction is increased and improved connectivity. The tablets are certainly good examples of this. O’Brien quotes venture capitalist Josh Goldman of Norwest Venture Partners:
“What strikes him is how much easier all of these things are to use and connect. Where it used to take heroic efforts to configure and network all these devices, increasingly he noticed that all he has to do is plug something in and it finds the other gadgets in the home.”
How far can this reach? Well one example I described last week in a previous blog is the Nest intelligent thermostat, which can connect to your in-home WiFi network. (See “Friday Video: Two minutes of system-design expertise from Matt Rogers, VP of Engineering and founder of Nest and designer of the thermostat of the future”)
There are still many devices in the home that can benefit from improved connectivity, as long as its done intelligently and not just to get the “WiFi” logo on the box. By that, I don’t mean a refrigerator with a built-in touch screen for Web surfing. However, a refrigerator might well be equipped with a bar-code scanner to keep track of what’s going in and out of the refrigerator to assist in making a shopping list. There have been attempts to do just that (here’s one from 2007) but the idea doesn’t seem to have caught fire in the ensuing four or five years. Perhaps it’s not yet been done correctly.
We’ll need to wait until CES 2013 to see, I guess.
(For a counter example, see “Want it? Too bad. A counter example to gadget-hungry consumer saturation: $30 Star Trek door chime“)