You say dumb, I say unicorn.

 

It just keeps running!This whole long post grew out of this short Cringely article about how Microsoft is dumbing down Windows. Cringely figures that this is being done so that Windows8 will run on Mobile devices.

Now Cringely can sometimes be right out to lunch about stuff, but I think the point he is making here should be obvious to anyone paying attention: All major desktop OS platforms are now rushing like mad to crank out operating systems that will work on fondleslabs and chip jewelry (now collectively known as “Mobile”) AS WELL AS desktop/laptops.

Because that’s where the money is going to be.

After the last couple-three decades nobody should need convincing that the point of a software company is NOT to create, innovate, forge ahead, or make the world a better place. The point of a software company is to sell as much software as possible, and make as much money as possible doing so. Like any other commercial enterprise.

This should come as no surprise, though the Internet is full of people who seem to believe that one software company or the other is a Magic Software Unicorn, and all the rest are Evil Evil Bastards Who Are Only In It For The Money. They will sit in Starbuck’s and blow spit at their screen as they make this point, the irony bouncing off them like an anti-trust ruling bounces off a Magic Software Unicorn.

We find ourselves now at the same point we have found ourselves many times before–some new way to sell more software has arrived, and it’s become a large enough market that it is worth moving into for these large companies. This time the new thing is Mobile. The Magic Software Unicorns will leap bravely into this market, vowing to make the world a better place for all involved. The cost for this better world is, of course, consumers buying more stuff more often–otherwise there would be no point in making the world a better place.

This is what the cool kids call one of them “disruptive moments.” And for the Magic Software Unicorns, it couldn’t really come a moment too soon. We ran out of low-hanging fruit in the desktop/laptop markets a few years ago, and now there some doubt that the fruit will last at all. Even with the shorter lifespan and improved destructibility of laptops, the rate at which people buy new computers and turn over their operating systems is not going to grow much where the pickings are easy. In fact, depending on whether it’s a week before or a week after one of the Magic Software Unicorns issues a profit report, it might even be slowing down.

That’s lethal to a mentality based on infinite constant growth forever this quarter forever.

Magic Software Unicorns have made a buttload of money by convincing their customers that there is some value in buying a new operating system or computer every couple of years or so. The reality is that most people only use their computers for a very small number of tasks, and most of those tasks could be done on a much simpler machine. Most people don’t need a new operating system that does more things every two years. They don’t explore all those things. They would be happy with a less-expensive system that makes it easier to do their small number of things. And when they want to do something else, it would be nice to just get that one thing simply and easily, with as few confusing steps as possible.

A less expensive, simpler device, sold as a premium device that does more than other premium devices. Put that on a two- or three-year contract, with the idea that OF COURSE you will get a new device when you get a new contract and you can watch the Magic Software Unicorn prance with joy.

And when you buy a new Mobile toy, it LOOKS different. You don’t just get just another beige or silver rectangle, you get a A WHOLE NEW THING that solves all the problems you didn’t know you had when you bought the last one.

The whole scheme friggin’ sells itself.

I overheard a conversation yesterday in which someone asked a clerk in a department store if they carried “that app to get Siri to call me ‘Rock Star’ like in the commercial.” And the clerk referred the customer to another clerk who “knows all about that app stuff.” The nerd in my head thought “Do you really need an app to change your own name on your own device?” I have no idea if you do, but this guy was willing to pay for an app to do it.

Is he nuts? Or is he just a normal user? I’m going with “normal.” Most people are net consumers on their computer. They read more than they write. They view more pictures than they put out. They get more help than they give, and they learn more than they teach. They fill in more blanks than they make forms. They watch more people get hit in the crotch than they get hit in the crotch (I’ve got a million of these, but I’ll stop now).

This might sound like a cranky assessment but in fact, it’s not a criticism in any way. Most people simply have more of a requirement to use their computer to do simple tasks–talk or write short messages to other people, view and read and listen and play–than they do to create content and products for other people. They are mostly consumers, not producers. They do not care how it works, and do not think it is their job to set up, fix, troubleshoot, or understand the device. They just want to use it to do a few simple things, and they will pay to have those things done.

A smart phone or tablet is a much better fit for this vast majority of computer users. It is a consumption device, not a production device. It’s terrible for writing or editing long documents (I will make you a deal: don’t give me anecdotes about someone writing a novel on Twitter or tell me about the dude who does New Yorker covers on his iPad, and I won’t make an analogy about people who paint by holding a brush in their butt), passable for recording the events of the day with a shaky camera or microphone (“Watch–it hit him right in the crotch!!!”), very handy for reading/watching/listening/playing.

As an added bonus, the phone/tablet market is growing like a weed, and the consumers in that market are pretty easy to sell new devices and operating systems on a regular basis right now. It’s like computer sales were in the 90’s, only faster and cheaper, without the need to make or deal with any physical software media. The return on investment for Magic Software Unicorns can be quite high, and the lifespan of the product is short and pretty much enforceable. Carriers will subsidise the product in order to get contracts, so the user never knows how much the operating system costs, so they don’t get mad at OS vendors as often. Customers get mad at the phone, and at the carrier, and that puts two lines of support between the customer and the OS vendor.

Compared to the cost and risk of trying to convince a jaded user-base to buy a new thing to do the same thing on a desktop/laptop, mobile is the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Though it was a bad fit for most users, the desktop/laptop was easy to sell because it is much, much better than nothing. That’s how we got luggables, and XTs, and the Apple II, and that advantage carried on for as long as the choice was between computer-as-we-sell-them on one hand, and NO computer on the other. Extend that idea just a little bit, and you see how  Microsoft achieved and maintained a monopoly position for so long: Everyone used MS’ products because “everyone” used MS’ products. No-one wanted to be on the outside looking in, or have to think/spend too much trying to do things another way–even if that meant putting up with a higher price, a worse fit, or a troublesome product that didn’t do exactly what you wanted it to.

The largest amount of the most customisable type of mass-produced product in the history of ever was mostly sold in a form that is completely uncustomisable.

And that’s because most people using computers do not want perfect software that that have to think about. They just want good ‘nough software that lets them do their stuff as simply as possible.  That’s actually not such a dumb thing to want.

There is a much larger population in the emerging markets for computers than in the existing user base. That is to say, there are still many more people Over There who don’t own computers than there are people Over Here who do. But reaching those markets poses more problems than reaching the existing one. First of all, there are more comfortable options open to non-users in those markets than there are for existing users Over There. Over Here, we are trying to improve and work with what we already have.  We’re trying to improve on things, even if that means dumbing down.

Over There, because any computer is better than no computer, an inexpensive used computer that you can afford with a free operating system on it (“free” has a few definitions here, some legal, some not) is infinitely superior to a new computer that you can’t afford. There’s a lower standard for Good ‘nough.

This makes the advantage of “everyone” using a particular product disappear. Existence before essence and all that. But these markets are also more work to develop for other reasons.

It might be that some of these new markets don’t have the same view of copyright and licensing that we do Over Here. It may be that the governments in those jurisdictions don’t want the same features that we take for granted Over Here available to people Over There.  It may be that those governments place a higher value on getting computers into the hands of their people than they place on making sure that licensing payments get to the software makers over here. They might also have other reasons for wanting everyone to be connected.

Centralized control of the technology–like a cell or data system–works for both the software vendor and these other interests. A cell or data plan can subsidise, or at least amortise, the cost of the device and the operating system, so people who couldn’t normally afford the device all at once can now pay for it over time. The system can determine which devices or operating systems it will work with, so software vendors don’t have to constantly compete against any other technology–including old versions of their own. And the system can determine who has access to what, ensuring that everyone toes the line, and it’s easy to find anyone who doesn’t. Last, but certainly not least, the infrastructure for mobile devices is just a lot easier to put in place, control, and maintain if you are starting from scratch right now.

All of this–the slowing desktop/laptop market, the growing mobile market, the potential of emerging markets, makes Mobile The Obvious Way Forward for Magic Software Unicorns. And as they rush into that space, we see what at first glance look like odd developments by the big desktop OS players, but are usually moves that fit with their overall approach.

Apple, always thinking of user experience, is making the user experience of iOS and OS X more similar to each other. That makes it easier for users of one Apple device to feel comfy buying and using another. And Apple is starting to push people more and more towards the idea of the App Store as the only reliable source of OS X software, the same role it plays on iOS.

Ubuntu, which tries to make a user-indifferent system appear friendly, is making their default user interface uniformly non-functional for both computer and mobile users (Sorry man, but I tried Unity on a desktop, and it seems built specifically to get you to do about 8 things, at the cost of being able to do anything else. It is horrible).  I wish there was some upside to this, but I can’t find it.

And, as mentioned in the Cringely article, MS is dropping their shiny, cheesy (sic), porky desktop interface, probably in order to make their mobile OS work on the lower-performance hardware we can cram into phones and tablets right now. This appears to be an historically uncharacteristic move, as MS has never had a problem simply requiring the user to buy more horsepower in order to run new versions of Windows, but as all three fans of the aptly-named WinCE can attest, it’s not complete unprecedented. What’s important is the licensing fee, and that the user sees the Windows logo on startup.

You’ll notice that two of the Magic Software Unicorns are trying to reduce their resource use by building just ONE system that will work on both Mobile and desktop/laptops. Those are the two who do not build their own hardware, and they are smart enough to know that if they get some traction in the market, then hardware manufacturers will come to THEM and the unicorns can go back to calling the shots.

Cranky as I sound, the move to Mobile is not an altogether bad thing. Feature- and function-wise, it’s a better fit for most users. Cost of entry is lower, and updates and compatibility issues between hardware and operating system are taken care up farther up the tree, instead of driving users nuts.

And you never know, after a few years, people might learn that they don’t have to have the things glued to their hands every waking second and might start to act like functional human beings again.

Unfortunately, none of this bodes well for those of us who produce things with technology–who actually use it to make complex things or do large jobs. While there is always lots of money to be made by cobbling together low-featured Mobile versions of software and selling it based on name value, it’s unrealistic to think of someone editing a film or mixing a complex recording or developing 3-D images–or large 2D images, or composing a poster layout or..or.. on the tiny screen and limited resources of a mobile device. Not with the current technology, anyway.

As I mentioned 400,000 words ago, the point of software companies is to sell software, and any innovation or initiative they may pursue falls out of that basic need to separate people from their money. Development of “better” operating systems or software is only profitable with the right combination of price and sales. Most improvements we have seen in commercial software have largely been the result of those products being over-built for most of the people who buy them. The development cost for that has been offset by a large sales volume.

In a Mobile-dominated model, there’s no benefit to an operating system that does more than it has to–it’s just a bare-bones system that supports apps. There’s no incentive to build in any features or capability that you could sell separately.  Like the ability to change the user name to “Rock God.”

We may see again a time in which products like Photoshop and ProTools become small-market items, and cost a lot of money, not just because they are named “Photoshop” and “ProTools” but because they are actually tools built for specialists, and they just don’t sell very many copies.

The future may be very easy to watch, but more difficult and expensive to make.

One Reply to “You say dumb, I say unicorn.”

  1. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that things have been simplified (or dumbed-down) in the software world. I remember barely 20 years ago my own apprehensions (and lots of other people’s) about operating a computer. That’s why AOL did so well, they just gave you some silly choices (“Oh, if I click the ‘News’ button, it will show me news!”) and away you went. But that sort of thing helped introduce people to the technology and got more people interested and, I daresay, savvy about it.

    But you’re right, the average Joe-Schmoe doesn’t actually need MORE BIGGER FASTER out of things like processing power when all they’re doing is sending texts/emails and “Lolling” at those funny cat pictures. I’m not a big computer guy, but I’m fascinated with technology. I moved to Macs not because I identified with the hip dude with the cool haircut was always slying cutting down the dopey looking older guy in the suit (I identified with the latter dude in most cases anyway), but because Windows Vista seemed unnecessarily complicated and non-functional. I tried to do something simple, it didn’t work and a bunch of Bad Stuff happened, and I didn’t want to put in the time or effort in learning how to tweak and fix all of it. I’m not a tweaker with computers, I just want to turn it on, load the program and giggle hysterically about at the latest xkcd cartoon while trying to pretend I get half of what they’re talking about. I don’t want to mess with settings, download drivers, or optimize my computing experience, I just want to write a paper, do simple sound and photo editing, and get on with doing the stuff I enjoy (like yapping mindlessly on blog posts).

    But innovators and producers still dictate the technology world; the consumption is just the reward for doing something people value. And as we approach what Kurzweil called the “singularity” (more and more people get to adopt newer technologies at an increasing rate), it will produce more financial resources for those people who are going to do what an old professor of mine called the B.H.A.G.–the Big, Hairy Audacious Goal. Just look at people like Myrvold who worked for Microsoft making what consumers consumed and then took his many resources that came from that endeavor and started a company focused on leveraging really big and interesting ideas. I think the fruit that sort of thing will bear will be worth the consumer-level inanity we had to suffer through to get there.

    That’s my hope anyway. Maybe I’ve been reading Peter Diamantis too much. Now excuse me, there’s a bunny with a pancake on its head.

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