The Endgame of Desktop Computers

Rotaty Dial PhoneI’ve been using Apple’s new Leopard operating system on my Mac for the past few weeks. And, for the most part, Microsoft’s Windows Vista’s been on my PC since the spring (though I periodically upgrade back to XP out of frustration).

At first, both environments were pretty exciting to dive into and start using.

However, over time, my enthusiasm has dwindled. Really, there’s very little either Leopard or Vista deliver to us users that we didn’t have before.

And I wonder if the innovation lifespan of the desktop computer, as a general consumer device, isn’t spent?

The last decade, really, has seen very limited innovation on either the Windows or the Mac platform. It’s really all been about doing the same things, in slightly different ways.

Leopard and Vista, in a nutshell, are little more than aesthetic improvements to the basic old desktop-folders-documents metaphor. Boooring.

Meanwhile, in other technical realms, innovation is accelerating. Booming, even.
This is particularly true on mobile devices.

Apple, of course, threw the spotlight on handheld computers this year with the release of its breakthrough device, the iPhone.

What Apple’s iPhone did in the cell phone market is a lot like what the company did to personal computers with the Mac and digital music players with the iPod.

In all cases, Apple didn’t really do much new. They just did a lot of old things right.
The iPhone proves that consumers want great mobile technologies, but they want them in a package that is easy to use and enjoyable to behold.

Nokia, Samsung, and HTC, in particular, are involved in a long-fought bloody battle to introduce exciting new innovations in handheld devices as fast as they can be conceived.

Unfortunately, many of their best products, while technologically advanced, are hard to use.

But that’s a key ingredient of an innovative market: these competitors are in a never-ending race to beat each other to market with exciting new features and capabilities.

Forget about the consumers — these companies just want boasting rights.

Interestingly, and unlike the PC market, most innovation on mobile devices has occurred in the hardware, or the way each device physically looks and operates.

There are a few general form factor categories that mobile phones fall into — the candybar, the flip, the slider — but the amount of design innovation that takes place within each category is remarkable.

Compare that to the world of PCs where you’d be hard pressed to tell one brand of desktop computer from another.

While this range of physical design makes for some pretty sexy mobile handcandy, the relative lack of innovation on the software side is why so many devices are so hard to use.

This is due, in no small part, to the limits that existing mobile platforms, like Windows Mobile, Symbian, and the Palm OS, place on what can be built in their environments.

Enter Google’s Android.

An open-source mobile platform, anyone can put the newly-released Android on whatever handheld device they please.

Android is the rough equivalent Windows Mobile, or the Palm OS, or even Apple’s version of OS X on the iPhone, in that it’s basically an operating system.

What sets Android apart, however, is that it’s totally open and available to anyone who wants to use it or put it on their phone.

And because it’s open source, anyone can adapt it to their specific purposes as they see fit.

Android will enable mobile innovators to be even more creative with their solutions because they won’t be limited by traditionally closed mobile software environments.

One final thing that I think drives innovation in the mobile technology market is the relative absence of old technology mental holdbacks.

There’s no one traditional metaphor driving the concept of the mobile telecommunications device, because we’ve never really had such a thing before.

If you consider the PC, it really hasn’t come very far from the typewriter my grandpa used. And Microsoft’s tablet platform has driven the metaphor even further back in time.

Mobile devices, however, long ago shed the basic form factor of the rotary telephone.

Many contemporary designs don’t even resemble a telephone at all. Mobile device designers enjoy a creative space much less hindered by any one historical holdback.

And that’s what makes the world of mobile technology so much fun: there’s no one set solution that the industry has settled on. There’s a sense of unsettledness that drives innovation in this space.

However, it’s the settled realm of the desktop PC that provides one the ability to be productive as well as playful. And as long as that remains true, we shall bear witness to ever-prettier, if ever-hollower, versions of Windows and the Mac OS for some time to come.

But mark my words: those days are numbered.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 16, 2007.