Michael Gartenberg’s column caught my eye through one of his Tweet’s – he casts a skeptical eye on the “tweener” space between the smartphone and the laptop (aka The One Pound Wasteland).
I like to demonstrate this tweener concept by taking an ultraportable laptop — say a ThinkPad X200 with a 12″ screen and setting it on the table next to an iPhone or a BlackBerry. Then in the middle I drop one of two objects — either an 8″ by 5″ Moleskine paper notebook or an airplane ticket — and say: “What could you do with that?”
Devices in the tweener category are too big to hold up to your ear, and too small to do any serious keyboard work. They won’t fit in a pocket and one looks dorkish holding one like a lady purse at the opera. Yet from the UMPC to the Kindle, the form factor lures us in — designers and consumers alike. And never has there been a success until the use-optimized Kindle.
Gartenberg posits that consumers will carry three electronic devices — let’s say a digital camera, cell phone and laptop (I throw in a FlipCam and Kindle) and that trying to breakt triad …. well, let’s go to his bottom line:
“Mobile devices are following two contradictory trajectories. One class is fragmenting in terms of core functions, creating new markets for stand-alone devices such as dedicated cameras and media players. The other, which includes such devices as smartphones and mobile Internet devices, is taking on new features and functions, rivaling stand-alone devices in terms of functionality through convergence. Neither approach is universally correct, and vendors more than ever need to understand the contextual factors that influence consumer device usage. They have to focus on providing the sorts of core features that will lead users to include these devices among the three that they’re willing to carry. Devices that can’t displace one of those three will simply not be purchased.”
I agree with his premise — this is a dismal space where few have succeeded. And the industry is in an interesting state driven by advances in smartphone/handset functionality on the iPhone side, and decreases in laptop pricing from the netbook end. I think Gartenberg is making the case that netbooks are tweeners. I don’t agree. I think they are Wintel machines that don’t cost much money. A tweener is a netbook like Sony’s $899 P device. The form factor is airplane ticket like, the keyboard is pretty cramped, but the screen height is very crowded in terms of scroll space. Netbooks have been a hot category — driven by a few factors: consumer attitudes towards commoditization, disposability, and their own economic comfort. If I can get a Windows experience on a sub-$400 device that hits the web when I connect to the home WiFi, then game over for many users. Keyboards aren’t super duper. Screens are ultraportable 10″ and under. But netbooks get the job done for a big segment of new laptop owners and the questions I have are this:
Can we go smaller or should we go smaller? Are tweeners just too big for pockets but too small for hands and therefore doomed? Or is the industry thinking about things entirely wrong? Where does pervasive connectivity come in? Where does simply working trump speeds-and-feeds? I never have patched, scanned, or otherwised babied my BlackBerry. So why am I patching, scanning, and babying a netbook running Windows XP?
Gartenberg is right. Either do something really well like a camera or an iPod, or do it all like a notebook. But trying to be all things to all people … no one has nailed it yet.