The lost boys club

By | 2013/07/16

Shrugging - Lost

Those of us who work in enterprise IT like to kid ourselves that it’s the hard end of town. I certainly used to. Servers keeping airlines running, storage holding the financial details for hundreds of thousands of people, backups protecting the medical data of millions of people. You name it, it sounds complex.

Yet it’s actually straight forward. Complex, yes. Innovative, often. But it’s all about scale, and it’s all about repetition. Enterprise IT is the easy end of town. Enterprise IT is driven by business, and business, when it works well demands quality products and quality processes. Combine the two of those and it’s actually fairly smooth sailing.

Consumer IT isn’t about desktop PCs and laptops any longer. I’m going to go so far as to say that’s now the prosumer part of the market. Consumer IT is about smartphones and tablets – the true commoditisation of computing, and if the events of the last 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that consumer IT is the most difficult game in the IT world.

It’s a game that Apple, by and large, has been successful with. iPod, iPhone, iPad and even the hobby entry, Apple TV, have all done quite well in establishing a position for themselves. Most importantly, they’ve been consistent. They announced the iPod, they started selling the iPod, and now, 12 years later, people can still go into a store and buy an iPod. Aunty Maisy, normally terrified of computers, can go and replace her 7 year old iPod with a new iPod classic, get her daughter Sally to “load up” all her music, and there’s nothing new to learn, she’s just off and running. Joe from accounting can replace his iPhone 4 with an iPhone 5 with a simple backup and restore option, and within half an hour or less (depending on how much music he had on his iPhone), he’s off and running. That school that deployed a whole bunch of original generation iPads can go out, replace them all with iPad Minis, sync them from backups and be productive within minutes or hours, not days or weeks.

Like them or not, Apple have understood the consumer IT marketplace. It demands ease of use, it demands ease of replacement, and it desires aesthetic design. But most importantly, it demands reliability and consistency.

Reliability comes in two factors though – product reliability and product line reliability.

The other day, when I moved, I threw out a Treo 650 I’d been using up to around a decade ago. As recently as 6 months ago I plugged it into a charger and it would power up. That’s product reliability.

Product line reliability is the reasonable expectation that once you buy into a vendor’s product set, they’ll continue to service and develop that product set in a useful, consistent and ongoing manner.

Palm had PalmOS, which they sat on for years … then they started dabbling with the Windows Mobile operating system, then they sold off PalmOS, then they spent years developing WebOS, then they released some WebOS products, and then they collapsed in a screaming heap to have their assets purchased by HP … who tinkered with those assets for a year or two then chucked them on the scrap heap.

Product line reliability? Hardly.

What we’re seeing now in the IT industry is companies who have, by and large, been successful at enterprise and what we’d now call prosumer IT failing at consumer IT. And that failure seems as much rooted in product line reliability as it is in product reliability.

Of course, HP is one of the better examples. When it comes to consumer IT, HP don’t know whether they’re Arthur or Martha, Milli or Vanilli. Under one CEO they announce they’re killing their PC business, under the next CEO they announce they’re keeping their PC business. And that’s at the more forgiving part of the market. In consumer IT? Do they have a SmartPhone? Well they had a WebOS one for a little while via Palm, then they went and killed it. Do they have a tablet? Well they had a WebOS one for a little while, but then they went and killed it. They’ve had, demo’d or announced tablets running WebOS, Android and Windows, and half of them don’t seem to make it past the product announcement stage. They’re now selling Android Slate tablets, but after their previous efforts, what guarantees are there for the consumer that they won’t be abandoned on the next CEO or if HP have a bender at a nudie bar and forget what they were doing the night before? They’re like an octopus playing tug-of-war with 8 different opponents … and losing every match. Now, they have a patent for a laptop-cum-phone-docking-station which a few geeks will hyperventilate about … but will they actually bring something to market? The even bigger question though is: if they do bring something to market, how long will it be before they kill it? People snapped up bargains when HP canned their WebOS tablet project, but there’s no evidence that canning that project, where the R&D had been mostly done for them, has brought them any tangible benefit.

Like them or loathe them, Samsung have at least been able to consistently bring products to market and offer a reliable product line. A person who buys a Samsung phone today knows there’s a very reasonable chance they’ll be able to replace it with another Samsung phone in a year’s time.

Microsoft? I have a Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8 (as well as my trusty iPhone 5), and I’m not convinced in a year’s time I’ll be able to walk into a store and buy a replacement model. Nokia’s announcement of a 41MP SmartPhone leaves me thinking they’re desperately circling the event horizon of their inevitable oblivion. That’s not a mark of excellence, it’s a mark of NO-ONE BELIEVES US ANY MORE QUICK DO SOMETHING THAT LOOKS AMAZING. And without Nokia, the Windows Phone experience is on pretty shaky grounds. Oh, you had a Windows Phone 7? Upgrades to Windows Phone 8 are denied … what do you think will happen when Windows Phone 9 comes out? Part of my great experiment project is to keep an eye on the upgradeability of my Lumia 920 if/when Windows Phone 9 is released.

People who buy consumer IT – SmartPhones, tablets, music players, etc., want product line reliability. They’re not interested in the companies that demonstrate a repeated lack of dedication to the marketplace. Businesses buy into enterprise IT knowing change is inevitable and knowing there may be a point where they have to switch vendors … but it’s also a more formal end of the marketplace, and that creates a different experience.

Lots of consumers want that little bit of extra security. In the prosumer part of the marketplace, where vendors such as HP have been working for years, if a model got canned 3 or 6 months after someone bought it, it made very little difference. Consumers want product line stability. Sure, you get some people who switch brands every time they replace a product, but ask around and you’ll see a large percentage of people stay loyal to brands … my parents-in-law have purchased Fisher & Paykel whitegoods for the entire 16+ years I’ve known them … my mother kept using Motorola mobile phones for 10+ years, and I look for Miele before any other appliance. I’ve got aunts and uncles who insist on only buying LG electronics, and most people I know refuse to look at any TV other than those from Samsung or Sony.

Brand loyalty is a big, big thing in the consumer electronics industry, and it’s proving to be as equally big in the consumer IT industry. That’s why Apple and Samsung are nailing it more than others … and as equally a big reason as to why the ‘giants’ like HP are joining the Lost Boys club.

Consumer IT is hard … and anyone who tells you otherwise clearly doesn’t understand it.