Lurking Laggard

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The better part of a year ago, I ran across a rare article, by Clive Thompson of Wired, about the tech market segment I inhabit, which I ended up calling the "leaping laggards" after Thompson discussed how many of us actually just "skip generations" of innovation. Thompson argued that our segment of the market deserves more attention than it is getting. I thought he was right then, but for a couple of reasons, I am now even more solidly in his camp. Why?

I'm in no rush to buy, but I have decided that my next cell phone will be some kind of smart phone, almost certainly one using the Android operating system. Or, as Paul Graham might put it, I will start carrying around a very small tablet instead of a phone. A parallel question floating around in the back of my mind has also been, "Do I want or need a larger tablet, like an iPad?" With those questions floating around in the back of my mind, I've had an antenna out for articles pertinent to such questions.

The first reason I better appreciate Thompson's line of thought pertains to seeing my own thought process about the new technology vindicated. Last May, I put it this way:

[S]keptics ... will, as I do in such situations, delegate testing for quality and usefulness to earlier adopters. But there are doubtless many people who merely pass as skeptics simply because their (lower) sales thresholds aren't being reached by advertisers. I think Goldberg is painfully close to rediscovering a legitimate purpose of marketing, which is to inform potential customers of the actual advantages of owning his employer's product or using his service.
Absent a compelling reason to spend over five hundred dollars on an iPad, I now have ample data from people who have been using them, have played around myself with one owned by a family member, and have even noticed after-market products, such as this keyboard-stand-case designed to address some of the iPad's more obvious shortcomings.

A great example of this kind of data is a Slate article in which John Swansburg asks a bunch of iPad owners how he can overcome his ambivalence about his own purchase. What I like about this article is that it touches on quite a few of the uses people have found for the iPad, including one of the more likely ones I'd be interested in:
For work, however, the iPad is not just bad, it represents a net reduction in productivity. One of the great things about the new Web is that you can manipulate text, but the iPad treats you like a child. (Not unlike the way iTunes treats you like a child with your own music.) I can't copy text out of the New York Times app or the Washington Post app or most other apps for that matter. Doing it from a Web page on Safari takes about the time required to make a cup of tea. I feel like I spend all my time poking at the screen trying to get the little blue box to behave. It's like I'm on an endless search for a button in the sewing box.
Apparently that keyboard thingie won't be quite enough on its own to make an iPad a suitable replacement for my aging netbook. Most of the other uses I see for an iPad are either not worth the money to me, or will be taken care of at least as well by a smart phone.

The second reason pertains to the rise of competitors in the marketplace for tablets (by which I mean smart phones and iPad-like devices). A recent article in Wired claims that nobody will be able to match Apple's combination of price and value for tablets of larger than smart phone size, but I am not so sure. For one thing, there is probably demand around the "edges" of the iPad's niche for devices without some of the limitations built into it by Apple. For another, just as Microsoft's lack of vertical integration made it possible for hardware vendors to beat Apple computers on price way back when, Android's independence from any single hardware vendor appears to have already resulted in many advantages emerging for Android phones, including a much faster rate of innovation and improvement, major inroads on the smart phone/"tiny tablet" market share (which will attract developers), and a soon-to-be huge price advantage.

Eric Raymond explains the last of these:
The story doesn't end in 2011. Android SoCs aren't generally deployed yet. When they start shipping later this year in third-generation Android phones, the parts count on a minimal smartphone is going to drop to a single chip, a capacitive display, a speaker/mic, a couple of microswitches, and the PCB to mount them on. Qualcomm is already predicting retail unit costs of $75 or less, and it's going to be less once the chip development costs are amortized out.

The key to this possibility is that most of what used to be hardware costs in a smartphone have been ephemeralized -- converted into information complexity inside the SoC [system-on-chip --ed]. The combination of ephemeralization and open source is the fundamental of the fundamentals here.
I see no reason for this trend to stop with tiny tablets/smart phones while I continue using my netbook. (There are quite a few other interesting posts on smart phones over at Armed and Dangerous, for anyone interested in reading more, including a post on "How to Buy an Android Phone.")

Simply by being patient, I've saved hundreds of dollars on a smart phone already, and have seen that I don't really want an iPad, at least for the nonce. So, I'll continue to lag and lurk.

-- CAV


Mike said...

Here's the thing.

Do you like to tinker under the hood? I've been reading for a while now, and it appears you're tech-savvy enough that maybe you do. If so, get the Thunderbolt (Android LTE) when it comes out. You'll be so happy you'll be doing the Snoopy Dance.

Do you like to drive, and don't really care what's going on under the hood? If so, get the iPhone. You'll love it. Nothing comes close to the iPhone end-user experience, not even Android, with the only substantive drawback to iOS being that you can't pull up the floorboards and mess around with the wiring.

The BlackBerry series tries to do both but doesn't really succeed at either. BBOS is neither as moddable as Android nor as intuitive as iOS. The primary draw of BB is that the phones are much cheaper than Android and iPhone handsets. The second big advantage to BB phones is reliability -- not that Android or iPhone are bad, per se, but BB tend to have long-life batteries standard, physical keyboards, all-business graphical interfaces, and robust radio hardware for a good signal and a good connection. If you want to beat your phone up and still have it work, get a BB Curve or similar.

For heavy lifting, your assumption of keeping your notebook instead of getting an iPad is right on target. The iPad may run a few productivity apps, but that's not really what it's for. It's just a very capable portable media player, really. If you're copying and pasting with substantial frequency on an iPad, you're using the wrong device for whatever it is you're doing.

I'm not sure what Swansburg's problem is with iTunes. I have found iTunes to be the best music organizing software around. Nobody is required to buy from Apple's store to use it... it works just fine with a collection solely of ripped CDs. Shrug.

Anyway enjoy your smartphone shopping and I'll be intrigued to see which one you pick!

Gus Van Horn said...

Your analyses of the pros and cons of the three major smart phone alternatives is right on the money, and reminds me of how I think about Linux vs Mac vs PC. When I first started using Linux years ago, I was something of an OS fanboy, but over time got past that to see that each has strengths and weaknesses, and that one can draw comparisons in many different categories at once that will matter in different ways to different people, and not just in terms of personal taste.

I like to tinker enough to have more flexibility than most people, so Android naturally appeals to me, anyway, but several other factors appear to make it the best choice for my needs. Someone else can reach a different answer for me for any number of good reasons.

mtnrunner2 said...

Hey.... :\ if you're really such a laggard, how come you even know about Android?

Actually, I'd like both, but the iPhone will do for now.

I have not had a chance to try out recent Android versions, but hopefully the UI is better than Google's web stuff. Maps is OK. Gmail not so much.

Gus Van Horn said...


Maybe I'm an advanced laggard.

I seem to recall running into virtualization software for the Android OS. (I think I even blogged it.) I'll try something like that out again when I get close to actually buying.

Anonymous said...

Gus, when you get your new phone, be sure and don't get a party line.

Gus Van Horn said...

One can CAN lag too much!

Elmas said...

Take a look here:

Gus Van Horn said...

Well, yes. Part of the price to pay for lower hardware costs and increased software choice is greater vigilance.