the low end growth curve

In 1994, somebody shared an article about how computer users were confused. I had a complicated reaction and made some predictions which can now be checked against reality.

In the computer biz, the low end of the product line gets higher volume, so it runs further down the production learning curve and further up the customer acceptance curve and then, when technological advances make it possible, overwhelms the high end. Already in the 1970s the minicomputer market was growing faster than the mainframe market. Then workstations overran much of the minicomputer market, and now high-performance personal computers are getting into position to overrun workstations (a Power Macintosh 8100-80 is about the same speed as a SparcStation 10 which costs several times as much). Each wave is led by different companies, which have different needs and different philosophies—the shift is not the substitution of a new small fast computer for a big old one, it’s a paradigm shift that affects all us computer users, especially in the operating system and user interface; future computers will grow up under the paradigm that’s winning at the time. Now consider: Personal computers are not the bottom of the computer product line. Consumer gadgets are. In the long run, the remote control and the video game will take over the universe, and all other computers will be made to look like them (whatever they look like when they finally win, five or fifteen years from now). If the current personal computer industry wants to survive on its own terms, then personal computers must become consumer gadgets, so that they can ride the low end growth curve. There is a marketing battle on the horizon: Computers are now cheap enough to be consumer gadgets, consumers are buying them, so Dell and Compaq do stand a theoretical chance of surviving in the face of Sega and 3DO and General Magic.

But, getting back to the topic, there’s a problem. Consumers are mystified by personal computers, and companies are taking it to be the customers’ fault. The attitude is the same as in this article: “Seemingly simple computer features baffle some users.” I say, if users are baffled then the features ain’t simple. The customer is always right. The mystification is the companies’ fault. I knew fifteen years ago that you should not ask a naive user to PRESS ANY KEY, but Compaq is only now catching on. There should not have to be instructions on how to put batteries in; the way should be obvious from looking at the machine, but nobody told Dell. These companies have infinitesimal expertise in designing consumer gadgets. They need to make radical improvements—and they’re too conservative; it doesn’t look like they’re going to; they have let Microsoft co-opt their user interface. I think the personal computer companies are going to be in serious trouble when the next wave crashes into them.

Apple Computer may be an exception. It is the only big personal computer company which has institutionalized user interface design expertise—it does know how to design consumer gadgets. Management is too staid to understand the next wave, but that may not be fatal. Apple has a historical pattern: It reacts too late to the big shifts in its business, and falls into danger, but when it does react it remakes the company and comes out stronger for it. And the company does have some consumer electronics experiments in progress, which may help.

Microsoft is also an interesting case. It often understands what’s coming next in time to take advantage of it, and its pattern is to provide what people think they want, rather than what they can best use. Bill Gates is brilliant and ruthlessly pragmatic, the slime, and he makes sure that Microsoft acts to succeed, rather than to do things right. So I figure that Microsoft stands a good chance of riding the consumer wave, though it may have to hold on tight.

2012 notes

I’m amused that my prediction for Apple Computer failed to expect the surprising return of Steve Jobs to the company, and that my prediction for Microsoft failed to expect the not-as-surprising departure of Bill Gates. Both events had big effects on the respective companies.

These predictions offer lessons: I think I was correct in understanding the tendency for the low end to eventually devour the high end, and I even had a small amount of detailed industry knowledge that seemed to offer prospects of forecasting how the devouring would take place. But the meal was only beginning at the end of the five-to-fifteen years I gave it to finish, and by then my detailed knowledge was totally out of date. The specific winners I called out, remote controls and video games, have remained specialized and it is smart phones and tablets that are now threatening to unseat the personal computer on the user side, while the cloud threatens it on the computation side.

I phrase the lessons for all futurists. Lesson 1: Time spans are less certain than you think, and advances tend to happen later than you expect. Lesson 2: Historical accidents matter and cannot be predicted. If it were not for Steve Jobs, tablets would not be big today.

Original version, May 1994.
Updated and added here January 2012.