Post-PC Era Part 2: The 1-9-90 Rule

PUBLISHED ON APR 29, 2010 — RANT

I have heard plenty of complaints from friends and colleagues, and seen similar things in the press, that they don’t see the benefit in the iPad because they’ll still need to lug around a laptop and a phone. So now they have even more stuff and another charger to cart around with them. They’re mistaken for two reasons; firstly this is the zero generation of these new devices and the apps and UX paradigm is not mature, but more importantly these people all fall into the 9% of the 1–9-90 rule.

The 1–9-90 rule is a shorthand way of making an observation about populations. In any given group of people doing something they’ll break into three groups; creators, power users and consumers. This applies to the arts (artists, patrons and theater goers), sports (athletes, superfans and normals), literature, politics, YouTube, etc.

If you are a producer of content you won’t be able to get away with only having a post-PC device. Eventually you’ll be able to do a tremendous amount of things with it, but you’ll also need some supplemental support. That support may be a very powerful device equivalent to a desktop or laptop machine with a lot of screen space so you can edit complex video or do graphic design or write code, or it may be additional input devices like a large keyboard so you can write prose or more easily manipulate spreadsheets. Sorry but for the foreseeable future you are correct and will indeed need more gear.

The other 90% is ready to move on.

Apple, Microsoft and Google appear to get this. They all have things in motion. If you are a developer and have not yet made the transition from native applications to web/cloud/app development you are about to have a rude awakening. The move to the new paradigm of end-user devices requires a change in how we approach UX and development. The application is no longer tied to the device, it exists in the world (i.e. ‘the cloud’) and should be accessible from any number of locations. Only one app at a time has the focus of the user, and should therefore take over the entire available display area when the user is directly interacting. These devices are much lower power than what we have in desktops and laptops today, so heavy lifting needs to be done in the cloud and the local end needs to be power sipping.

These changes require a clean break from the past. The Mac/Windows paradigm is dead for these 90% devices. Apple has managed to do an end run via iPhone and App Store. Yesterday the other shoe dropped; not only is the next WWDC being billed as “The center of the app universe” and heavily iPad/iPhone centric, but they have already cut the Mac out of the Apple Design Awards. So Apple is wasting no time in moving on.

Microsoft has been preparing as well. They’ve killed off the old Windows Mobile platform in a single stroke. The evolution of .NET and WPF over the past decade has managed to put it in a good position going forward with regard to apps for this new layer on multiple platforms. (Windows phone may be a has been out of the gate but MS as a code powerhouse should not be discounted.)

Google has Android and ChromeOS in its quiver. Android is getting a lot of traction lately and there are a number of tablet devices coming with Android already.

That brings us to Palm and HP. WebOS is theoretically a very compelling platform for this new generation of devices. It was designed to run on phones so it can work in a low-power environment. The UX paradigm they’ve adopted is even more suited to the larger screen of a tablet. Most importantly WebOS was designed from the ground up to be a cloud computing endpoint solution.

That said, I have no faith in the ability of HP or Palm to execute, and the merged entity has even worse chances. Mergers usuayfail, and it will take brilliant leadership and flawless execution to pull this off well and quickly. I wish them the best, the market will benefit from some robust competition.

Assuming they don’t screw up execution of the device designs, pricing and technology stack, how successful these platforms will be in the end comes down to two things; The Cloud, and Developers.

It’s about the Cloud

Devices in this new paradigm are mostly endpoints for apps that live elsewhere. This should go for not just the apps running on the device, but for the entire device. It needs to be a portal into the cloud, not a device that happens to have cloud connectivity. To that end it should never need to be connected to another machine with a wire for any reason, nor should there be any software needed to manage the device that isn’t running on the device itself or in the cloud. This means; no tethering to a PC, no sync, no iTunes.

Apple is already losing that battle and it hasn’t even really started. For business reasons it may be unable to win that battle. Their own entrenched lines of business will likely prevent them from doing the right thing. However; they have been making acquisition moves that make it appear they understand they need to move their music collection to the cloud instead of being a download and sync proposition, so they still are in the race.

Google gets it, they were born getting it. ChromeOS is designed to be a next generation platform specifically for this type of model. Android has given them experience running an app store and got their feet wet with devices. They already own most of our important data through Gmail, docs, voice etc. They’re well positioned.

Microsoft is learning fast. WinPhone 7 (and the Kin which has already been introduced and is based on the same technology stack) is designed to be a cloud endpoint solution. No tethering, sync and backup is to the cloud. They are moving fast with a hugely scalable cloud backend infrastructure. And exiting looking devices are coming from a number of manufacturers, including new player Dell.

Developers Developers Developers

It all comes down to developers in the trenches. It always has.

This battle will be fought mostly in the cloud, but there are local apps as well. Google knows this and has been fighting to get HTML5 to be very compelling. If native apps have any edge at all it complicates things for them greatly, so they have hedged their bets with a native programming interface for Android, and will likely be forced to do so for ChromeOS as well. WebOS and Chrome as similarly situated with the developer stack being essentially the same as what would be used to develop any browser-centric web app.

Apple is saddled with technology that is rather tired at this point. Objective-C has always been an oddball platform and the tools are 5–15 years behind Microsoft depending on the area you look at. If they are smart they are putting serious effort here for next generation tools and languages.

Microsoft has an edge in local app development because of the maturity of their tools and the up to the minute capabilities of the languages they have on top of the .NET platform. They win the developer tools fight hands down on technical merit. Large portions of the developer community still treat Microsoft as being evil because they haven’t been paying attention to what has happened over the past 8 years. Whether Microsoft can really pull off being a serious contender going forward will be a hearts and minds campaign. They have to iterate very quickly, updating the WinPhone platform every six months, execute on their version of an app store flawlessly and more permissively than Apple has done. They need to get their tooling able to target other platforms. And they’ll need to reach out to the developers who think they love Ruby simply because it felt so good to stop being abused by Java.

All of this is the next phase, these battles will be fought and won or lost over the next 3–5 years. After the initial splintering caused by the different app platforms, at the end of it we’ll have moved to a deeper phase of compatibility as more and more of the essence of the applications moves onto the cloud and browsers become able to present ever more expressive and performant UX.

TAGS: TECH