Wednesday, January 30, 2013

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How to Understand Technology Trends -- Ignore Personal Preference, Focus on Sales & Usage Data

PC sales flat as tablet sales rise

I've been writing about technology in various forms for about 10 years, and while I make highly arguable opinions fairly often, there's one reliable principle I can strongly recommend -- avoid this often unspoken, but all too common assumption:

"Since I don't like or use it, it will fail."

That, or its opposite, equally flawed assumption: "Since I like and use this, it's going to be big." I've learned this the hard way myself more than a few times, and when I read posts about technology trends today, it's an assumption that keeps coming up -- made by both writers and their readers in comments -- over and over again. Actual examples from actual articles I've read over the years, re-phrased to protect the identity of the silly: "Online worlds are weird and boring, so they must just be a niche." "My kid loves his Sony PlayStation 3, so I think it's going to take over the market." "Cheap smartphone games are lame, so they're just a passing fad." (Actually, the CEO of Nintendo basically expressed that last opinion a couple years ago, so it's no surprise Nintendo is currently floundering.)

Speaking of mobile games, I thought about the "Since I don't like or use it, it will fail" assumption while reading over the comments to this post on Linden Lab's move toward making mobile products. The existing data consistently suggests that mobile/tablet sales and usage keep growing strongly, while desktop PC sales (Linden Lab's main platform, for Second Life) remain stagnant. But point this reality out, and you're sure to get resistance from adamant desktop PC lovers. That's no surprise:

Most people (including me) resist the adoption of a technology when they personally prefer an alternative, which generally causes them to distort its larger importance. It's taken me years to break out of this habit, largely through the tutelage of savvy tech thought leaders like Om Malik and Susan Wu that I've been lucky enough to work for, and it's still an instinct I have to curb. But that's why it's so important to look at the overall market data first and foremost, largely discounting proof by anecdote (especially anecdotes which include you).

So for example, to take a personal case that still makes me wince a bit, I was excited by and wanted to help develop the virtual world Blue Mars, in great part because it was going to be cloud-deployed, and I thought (and think) cloud streaming for games is innovative and cool and therefore, going to be the future. That may eventually be the case. But no matter my own opinion, the data still suggests that's far from certain.

So back to tablets versus PCs: While I myself personally prefer a high end laptop to a tablet, I don't assert that this means most or even many people will think (or shop) like I do in the future. Better to ignore your personal feelings and look at the data, because in this context, the trend data matters more. Factually, and in my view, morally: Because when you force yourself to set your personal preferences aside long enough to look at what others care about, you get a useful reminder that the world doesn't revolve around you.

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Update, 9:00 PM: For clarity, added "That, or its opposite, equally flawed assumption: 'Since I like and use this, it's going to be big.'"

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Ajax Manatiso

You have to keep in mind the appropriateness of the platform. I certainly wouldn't play Angry Birds on a desktop with a 20 inch screen and I also wouldn't want to work on a relational database on a tiny smartphone screen.

And it is just as inappropriate to assume a current trend will continue. When the Segway first came out, growth in Segway sales was greater than that for cars or motorcycles -- but it flattened out quickly, just as I expect smartphones and mobile apps growth to soon flatten out. As they say, current trends are no prediction of future value.


CronoCloud Creeggan

What you're not thinking of, is that Desktop is stagnant because penetration is maxed out. Smartphone/Tablet usage is growing because it's a growing market, and a different market than desktop.

You also have to realize that "mobile" to many people means browsing Facebook on their phone tablet WHILE watching TV or doing something else. It's not replacing, there's only so many hours in the day, it's "supplementing"

You also have to realize that the tech-glitterati environs of silicon valley culture and university culture are artificial environments that you can't really extrapolate from to "the rest of us" A good example of that is the "Cult of Apple", while Apple's phones and music players have done well with the masses , non-mobile OSX...not so much. But where you are amongst the technorati, Macs are probably more common, but here? But if you were to say "zOMG Macs are so popular! I only see Macbooks at the local starbucks near the BART station. Apple will rule the world!"...well you'd be making a demographic mistake.

And there's another point. Let's say we have some wannabe virtual world that is unsuccessful because they don't understand the users...lets say we call that one... Blue Mars. Suppose this Blue Mars has a hundred or so concurrent users, peak, and some thousands of downloads. Suppose they drop the desktop and go mobile....they could have 200 concurrent users and then have their marketroids make the following statement to try to drum up more VC money "we went mobile and doubled our userbase" but still not have many users at all. (They STILL don't understand the value of cross-platform, STILL no Android mobile or Linux desktop clients)

So yes, I think the technorati are reading too much into their data to try to prove that what they go gaga for (Mobile, cloud, etc) is going to be the "only thing" rather than "one of many things"

Metacam Oh

I think the bigger mistake would be assuming we are all going to be walking around with these huge physical screens on our lap everywhere we go. The next thing is already right around the corner, Google Glass.

Shockwave Yareach

Chrono: exactly. How many of these Ipad users have no other computer in their home? Of the dozens of ipad users I personally know, every single one of them plugs it into a desktop or laptop quite often. It's A tool, but not the only tool in the chest.

My mother in law uses hers for recipes in the kitchen, carries it into the living room and reads the paper on it during the commercials of her TV show. It's a hyperportable laptop to her. But until it can hold the 500Gigs that the laptop does, she's not giving up her music collection and her enormous library of pictures.

Ciaran Laval

Stagnant desktop sales whilst the mobile market eats into some desktop use cases is hardly a cause for deathwatch on the desktop, the desktop isn't going anywhere for quite some time.

Yes it is wise for companies to invest time and development for mobile usage, as it is a growing market and will continue to grow but there's also a horses for courses issue, mobile is a long way from being able to deliver the desktop experience.

Those large monitors or TV sceens aren't going to go away and be replaced by people playing MMO's or watching movies on a Nexus 7.

Serendipidy Haven

'Stagnant' desktop growth? Surely that should read 'stable'?

Consider how long desktops have been along compared to tablets and smartphones - of course the latter are going to show exponential growth initially, but over time they'll find their niche and flatten out, or - more likely these days - will be superseded by technology that does the same thing better, faster and more in tune with people's lifestyles.

There are things that tablets and smartphones do brilliantly - far more so than desktops are able, but by the same token, there are things desktops do far better than the new kids on the block. Things just work better on the platform that fits the purpose.

Speaking personally, I'm sticking with my desktop for SL, photography and many other activities, because it's perfect for my purpose - I can't ever see me using a tablet or phone for SL - although some will find them ideal for the job - they're too small and I prefer to type on a proper keyboard! I'm sure there are some who will leap at the chance to use Leap Motion in SL - good for them, but you won't find me waving my arms about like a maniac in font of the screen.

Trend data has its uses, but it can also mask facts when short-term trends are put up against long-term measurements. Human nature is the key pivot here - much as there's a huge trend towards new technology, there's also plenty of stick-in-the-muds like me, who for perfectly valid reasons are sticking to more established technology. It's not a competition - the march of technology will continue unabated, but i'd bet that PCs will be holding their own in 10 years from now, along with other old hat tech like smartphones, the cloud and tablets... all doing their thing and meeting our needs perfectly well for the things they do best for us.

Ezra

Will you be making this blog mobile-friendly soon? Right now it scores a 0% in mobile-friendliness. http://validator.w3.org/mobile/check?task=20130131000350452.mobile2&docAddr=http%3A%2F%2Fnwn.blogs.com%2F

Despite that and a lack of responsive-design for mobile browsers, I'm sure this blog will be fine and there's no sense of urgency to shell out for a mobile design, or an NWN app.

Similarly, companies that aren't yet mobile-friendly will be fine. I think your article from before should've been titled "Devs Like Linden Lab Must Go Mobile or Miss Opportunities", not "Devs Like Linden Lab Must Go Mobile or Die".

You're missing opportunities by not having NWN designed for mobile, but apparently you're still doing fine. Every other profitable company out there like Linden Lab needn't worry the desktop will disappear tomorrow or the decade to come, because it won't. At the same time, they're smart to take advantage of mobile.

Connie Arida

Meh, I would like to have a quick jog round SL on my tablet while at the coffee shop without lugging a laptop. I would even pay 4.99( gasp horror) for a well working App. But each to their own.
BTW I have NWN as a feed on my Google currents, which is fine, but not as nice as say the Huffington Post on Currents.

CronoCloud Creeggan

There already are TPV phone/tablet SL clients, they've been mentioned on NWN several times, Lumiya is one.

Kim Anubis

You're right, Hamlet. There are a million miles between, "Since I don't like or use it, it will fail," and, "Since I don't like or use it, it will fail to get any of my money." Anyone who has to predict trends in business needs to be pretty good at discerning which is which, and the tension between the two can really be a drag.

Ezra, I'm surprised by your results -- NWN works fine for me on an old iPad 1 using any of my favorite browsers. I used to have problems posting comments via the Pulse app, but even that has worked reliably for some months. Ironically, the link you posted wont work for me at all, though. I'm guessing the layout isn't good on a phone?

Ezra

@Kim

It's the W3's mobile validator.

The point is NWN does fine ignoring the plethora of articles you can find out there showing data and trends that one's blog should be built mobile-friendly or suffer. I'm sure someone out there would say a blog would die without being built with mobile in mind.

But it's dramatic and premature. Long before desktops disappear, the difference between smartphones, tablets, laptops and desktops will be trivial. Which is why reading this blog on an iPhone 5 is a lot more possible than reading it on the original iPhone 1.

It's all a faux dilemma. Mobile OSs are becoming more like desktop OSs and vice-versa. Heck, despite Microsoft not doing as well mobile as Google or Apple, they've maid their mobile OS' pretty much Windows 8.

It shouldn't be surprising if in just a few years the differences between iOS and Mac OS are minimal too. It shouldn't be surprising now that a lot of tablet users use keyboard attachments, and more and more desktop users are on operating systems with multitouch recognition and new monitors and mice are built for it.

Devs, like bloggers, aren't in a desperate need to rework their world for mobile, because mobile is coming to them whether they like it or not. You can't shop hardware or the latest Windows without understanding that.

Kim Anubis

Ezra, I agree completely -- pretty soon it's all going to work the same, regardless of what shape and size box it comes in.

Connie Arida

@Chrono
Yes, I have used Lumiya. Slow and horrible. Note I said a "well working app".:)

Hamlet Au

"You're missing opportunities by not having NWN designed for mobile, but apparently you're still doing fine."

I'm doing fine, but I'd be doing much better if NWN was optimized for mobile (I know it sucks to browse this site on a smartphone) or even better if it came on an app for tablets. I've been wanting to do that for the last couple years, because I can see that's where the audience is going.

That's really what this is about -- not either desktop OR mobile, but developing where the audience is going. Yes, there's still an audience for desktop-based entertainment, so by all means develop SOME content for that space. But to ignore mobile is highly risky. If your desktop audience suddenly goes away (as they often do, especially because it now attracts less and less usage), and your portfolio is only focused on desktop, you're screwed.

CronoCloud Creeggan

@Hamlet:

I don't see the audience going mobile for EVERYTHING. mobile supplements existing tech for people.

Sure, I've used my Android phone to browse NWN, but it's not as good as browsing NWN on my computer, especially not for posting. I don't even have a data plan for it and only use the data features over wi-fi at home.

That smartphone of mine, sure you can use it for quick info lookups but for other things it's not even a match for my Sony PSP, let alone my PS3 or desktop.

Making vague claims about how mubile usage is growing is silly, if you don't also know "how" they're being used. People are still putting HUGE amounts of time into "Real" games/MMO's?Virtual worlds. Those people aren't going to disappear all of a sudden and start playing some little tech-hipster hyped game-app-of-the-week, that's designed for playing in doctor's waiting rooms or on the bus.

I know you've drunk the mobile kool-aid, but it's getting a bit silly. There are certain things that mobile is simply not suited for: "Real games", and content creation among them. Could you have written our books on your smartphone, I don't think so. Take quick notes, yes. Massive text input...no.

Sure, some of the things I do in SL could be done on a mobile client of some sort, like shopping, inventory management or recieving notices....but communicating?

I think you need to spend more time in-world doing what the masses of SL do, then you would understand while mobile is no go for virtual worlds other than the most simplest of things.

Arcadia Codesmith

The desktop audience is not going to suddenly go away, and it's not at all risky to develop primarily or exclusively for it. The desktop has reached market saturation within its current parameters. That's not a sign of imminent demise, it's an enormous success story. That sustainable, steady-state audience is going to be around for many, many years to come, and that's discounting future growth due to dropping prices and increased worldwide availability of bandwidth.

The phone and tablet won't displace the desktop unless they can do what the desktop does: deliver compelling immersive experiences. Google's goggles are a step in that direction, perhaps, but they need to be paired with an input mechanism that can do everything a keyboard and mouse can do, and more.

I don't discount the phone/tablet at all, but it's an entirely different world. Fashion houses don't switch over to pizza delivery if pizza surges in popularity. Desktop developers don't need to shift gears to make little games for the little screen.

Iggy

@Arcadia, in rather heated exchanges on these recent topics, your points are civil and well made.

At times, however, I feel that we are arguing at cross purposes. I agree that if those developing immersive games that require a desktop can make money at it, by all means, continue.

I suppose that is LL's quandary. What DO they want SL to be, long term?

Millennials, save the gamer subgroup, are simply not buying desktops (or CDs, or DVDs, land-line phones, 1970 Chevelle SS 454s, or books from brick-and-mortar stores). For serious games, the rise of portable computing in all its forms is disruptive, in Tim Wu's sense of how disruptive technology can destroy or forever change entire industries.

Note the *can* here. There are still manufacturers making good money selling tinkerers like me carburetors, cold-air induction systems, analog gauges, and drum brakes for stupidly overpowered antique cars. We are a profitable niche in the larger world of car fetishism.

For online experiences, if one wants to reach that huge demographic who does not use a desktop computer, the experience must at least run on a typical laptop and, increasingly, work with mobile technologies.

So it's up to LL and other companies to figure out what to be for this emerging and huge market.

Whatever we all feel personally.

Hamlet Au

"The desktop audience is not going to suddenly go away, and it's not at all risky to develop primarily or exclusively for it"

Why is it not risky to develop only for a platform that isn't growing in absolute numbers, shrinking in total user hours, at the expense of a platform with a growing user base and user hours?

CronoCloud Creeggan

@Iggy:

Those "Millenials" you talk about still have laptops, right? Personally I don't define laptops as "mobile", sure some minority of people lug them around but for mamy people they're simply "space-savers with a built in monitor" and sit in one spot.

And as I have said, university settings are artificial enviromnments.

@Hamlet:

It's not risky, because growth isn't the absolute metric of value. There are limits to growth you know, it's not infinite. So defining only "double-digit constant growth" as the only measure of success is quite simply, a trap that too many technorati fall into.

Iggy

@Crono,

University campuses are walled gardens, but our grads go on to work and live among the general populace. They won't buy desktops once they trade a dorm room for an apartment.

Whether tablets replace their laptops will be the ongoing question. As for how most Millennials communicate? It's by phone, at up to 300 texts daily.

Their avatars? Themselves.

Arcadia Codesmith

@Hamlet: Oh, I don't know. Ask Hollywood. The number of screens in America has been flat for years. They may alter how they market and distribute their product to leverage new technolgies, but they don't change the product.

It might make sense to invest in short, cheap web series which are growing in popularity, and some studios are doing just that... as a sideline. But it's not the death knell for long-form cinema, and studios that are focusing exclusively on that format are doing just fine and will continue to do just fine for the foreseeable future.

I maintain that developing for an established, stable format and platform is the exact opposite of risk. Risk is totally abandoning or altering beyond all recognition the things you do well to jump on the trendy bandwagon.

When I was in theatre, that's what we'd call "can't take direction". When a casting director gives you a note, you don't totally change your performance (because your performance is what got you to that point in the audition process). Rather you consider carefully what the director is telling you, and layer it on top of what you're already doing right.

I think that's what Linden Labs is doing and should continue doing -- keep the primary focus on Second Life as a immersive desktop application, but on top of that, develop mobile apps that either interact with SL in interesting ways or which are totally independent while still leveraging the things that SL does well.

So I'm not totally disagreeing with you or Iggy. I just think you're overstating the case. Keep Calm. Too much agility is as bad as too little, if you agile yourself over a cliff.

Masami Kuramoto

Iggy wrote:

They won't buy desktops once they trade a dorm room for an apartment.

Where is the study to back up this bold statement? Aren't you stepping into the very trap that Hamlet just warned you about?

Wolf Baginski

Of course, this whole business of using the latest new technology fails in some critical ways.

When are we going to get away from text input system originally designed to slow humans down to the reliable speed of a purely mechanical system of recording text?

And if you want to run a tablet for six hours, with the graphics tech needed for Second Life, the battery will need to store roughly as much energy as half a pound of high explosives. And Lithium-Ion batteries are between five and ten times the weight.

Second Life on tablets, or Google Glass, needs a considerable increase in energy efficiency, or you will be carrying a bomb in your pocket. And we can forget about text. It will have to be voice only unless we breed people with tiny little hands.

I am now trying not to imagine Hamlet walking down the street with his hands in his trouser pockets, frantically typing on a hidden keyboard, while a bettery gets hotter and hotter...

Ciaran Laval

@Iggy "Millennials, save the gamer subgroup, are simply not buying desktops (or CDs, or DVDs, land-line phones, 1970 Chevelle SS 454s, or books from brick-and-mortar stores)."

I think you're over egging the pudding here, Millenials are still buying desktops, books from bricks and mortar stores, CD's, DVD's etc. However, like Generation X and beyond they're also taking advantage of online shopping.

@Iggy "For serious games, the rise of portable computing in all its forms is disruptive, in Tim Wu's sense of how disruptive technology can destroy or forever change entire industries."

Agreed, the rise of portable computing has been disruptive and I'm pretty sure Philip Rosedale once commented upon this when it came to Second Life and graphics, the point being that the rise of the laptop had disrupted their forecasts on where graphics cards would be.

Hamlet Au

"it's not the death knell for long-form cinema, and studios that are focusing exclusively on that format are doing just fine and will continue to do just fine for the foreseeable future."

Actually, box office movie sales has been declining for the last few years. Last year, they were lowest they've been since 1995: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/29/movies/hollywood-seeks-to-slow-cultural-shift-to-tv.html

And there are no major movie studios that focus exclusively on long-form cinema; all of them or their corporate partners invest and develop in other medium, short form content, and ancillary markets, including and especially mobile.

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