A Question of Value

When small handheld computing devices went mainstream, they did so by replacing boredom. I recognize that this supposition seems rather reductive and perhaps more than a little stretched in pursuit of achieving comedic effect, but consider the situations many use their mobile devices in, and what they use them for: often, people employ the latest iteration of this category, smartphones, to stay boredom in a checkout line, provide an escape from the drudgery of a lengthy commute, or to avoid interacting with others in what could otherwise prove an awkward or otherwise unpleasant situation. Yes, there are other use cases — communication, for example — but the majority of those additional situations fall within one of the previously-described ones. Thus, the jobs consumers hire this category of computer to do has remained mostly constant throughout the short time period from going mainstream until now.

However, this was not always the case: at the dawn of the personal computing age, these devices — in the form of small tablets roughly the size of modern-day smartphones, yet unable to maintain a constant internet connection — were geared towards the business archetype despite failing so spectacularly to accomplish needs we would today consider deal-breakers. Yet, the inevitable march of progress kept them relevant as processors shrunk, battery capacity increased, and screen technology improved. Natural progress took care of all but one area of differentiation: the incorporation of additional capabilities. This is, in no small part, why Steve Jobs felt such a need to emphasize “mobile phone, iPad, internet communicator” in that 2007 keynote, and why that combination proved so revolutionary at the time: whereas the incumbents had adopted a model of incremental improvement, Apple aimed for the one aspect they did not in forever raising the bar for what it meant to build a handheld computer.

With that keynote, the iPhone met all the requirements consumers demanded of such a device, and added a few more for anyone seeking to entire this market thereafter. Therein lies its genius, the reason the iPhone became one of the most sought-after commodities in the developed world, and why we have seen so little volatility with regards to its core feature set over the last seven years. Apple has no incentive to add anything radical because no one needs any more features from their iPhone than it debuted with in 2007, and that the inevitable march of progress will not naturally take care of. Conveniences like Touch ID, yes, but thus far no one has clamored for significant features not present in the first generation iPhone such as an expendable antenna or built-in stylus, for example.

However, even if the iPhone did fulfill every desire its users asked of it, it still fell short in some other areas. Not necessarily out of an inability to perform competitively at such tasks, but more so because it was simply not the right tool for the job. The screwdriver on your pocket knife might work just fine for the job, but given the opportunity few will choose it over the one in their toolbox. Thus, leading up to April of 2010, Apple had an open space in their lineup between the iPhone and their Mac line — a gap that, on April third, Apple filled with the iPad. Positioned as a more capable iPhone due to its larger screen, the iPad became the go-to computer in the majority of corporate environments where other, obviously inferior devices had previously reigned supreme, and that’s to say nothing for the public sector where it has enjoyed incredible popularity. After its initial release, in possession of the requisite capabilities to become a suitable device for all consumers, the march of progress took over and today, as is the case with the iPhone, the iPad receives incremental updates to improve upon the core set of competencies present in it’s first revision.

The iPhone was born of a need unmet with previous handheld devices; the iPad was born of a need unmet with other attempts at desktop-class computing in a form factor more portable than a laptop or god-awful netbooks. In both cases, the iPhone and iPad both solved a problem and obviated an entire class of device. Thus, we can use these two questions — “What problem will this device solve?” and “What device will this obviate?” — as a measure for the possibility of success when evaluating the plausibility of a new category. These are questions every consumer will have to answer when deciding whether or not to purchase such a device, after all, so it is important that this be a clear and easily-discoverable value proposition. For no one has infinite time, and as mobile continues to eat the world — and our time — we must begin to make sacrifices, choosing one device, product, or medium over another. Moreover, this proposed class of device has the added challenge of entering a landscape already occupied by entrenched devices and players who have proven their worth time and time again — and, for an entire generation, have done so for as long as they can remember.

So what problem will these wearable devices solve? What device, product, service, or medium will they obviate in a play for a portion of our finite time? Defining that, as Jim Dalrymple said in commenting on a post published last week, truly is key.