iPhones, netbooks, and the age of the invisible PC

The usage models of computing are changing. Can the software development community keep up?

I can't help but hear echoes of the past when developers wax ebullient about all the money to be made in iPhone apps. If you believe the hype, even an app that does absolutely nothing can net thousands.

Given the economic misery that dominates the headlines these days, what developer wouldn't be lured by that? But it's fool's gold -- of course it is -- just like the Web boom of the late 1990s and the multimedia CD-ROM gold rush before that.

Still, there's something intriguing about Apple's App Store and the curious ecosystem it has created. Bubble it may be, but consumers have never bought software like this before. A recent study by Pinch Media showed that most iPhone users rarely use an app more than a few times -- and yet they keep downloading them anyway. Often they even pay for them.

What is it about this new device that it's able to transform customer usage patterns so profoundly? The more I think about it, the more I think the iPhone may be more than just the latest manifestation of the tech gold rush phenomenon -- it may actually be a sneak peek at the consumer software market that is to come.

The netbook revolution

There's one product category that's selling even faster than the iPhone, and that's netbooks.

This surprised me at first. I've enjoyed the netbooks I've tested so far immensely; I'm typing this blog on one now. But I was one of those few who were willing to pay hefty premiums for ultralight laptops long before the netbook concept was ever conceived. As I understood it, I was a niche market.

Lately, however, I've come to see things differently. What makes netbooks appealing to the average consumer is not their light weight. It's not even their price point -- at least, not entirely. What sets netbooks apart is that they are arguably the first products designed specifically for the late stage of the PC product life cycle. In years to come, we may mark the introduction of the Eee PC as the beginning of the post-PC era.

[ In addition to success in the consumer market, netbooks are starting to make business sense as well. ]

Doom and gloom? Hardly. Every product goes through this cycle. Remember CD players? The first ones cost hundreds of dollars. Then, as more and more manufacturers entered the market, the new models tried to hang onto their margins by advertising such dubious features as oversampling, multibyte D/A converters, vibration-dampened motors, and custom-engineered lenses for their lasers. But market forces continued to drive prices down, and today it's a rare customer who would pay top dollar for a brand-name CD deck when a $30 Chinese player will do the job just as well.

Netbooks are the inevitable result of the same process acting on the PC market. They aren't well-suited to Photoshop, but they don't need to be -- your typical consumer doesn't have time to learn Photoshop anyway.

Netbooks excel at running Web-enabled, purpose-built applications for everyday tasks: Web browsing, light document editing, and communications. In short, their strengths are the same as the iPhone's. In a sense, the iPhone is nothing more than an ultracompact netbook.

Software for the post-PC era

The fact that today's consumers are satisfied with computers with capabilities comparable to those of mobile phones rather than full-powered PCs demonstrates how dramatically the usage patterns of computing are shifting. Long gone is the hobbyist market of the 1980s. Today, a computer in the house is virtually invisible -- as unremarkable as a telephone, a TV, or a microwave oven -- and today's users interact with them accordingly.

So what kinds of applications are best suited to the invisible PC? I suspect the iPhone may offer us the best working model we have today. No, I don't expect an avalanche of junk apps for PCs, like you see on the iPhone (we've been through that already on the PC). But an invisible PC calls for invisible software -- kind of like what you find on the iTunes App Store.

Because netbooks lack optical drives, you can't install software on them the same way you can on a regular PC. As a result, that model will disappear. Perhaps an app store for PCs lies in the future, but no matter what, software for the netbook era must be delivered over the Internet, and software installation must be seamless or even vanish entirely. Light software front ends coupled with network services and cloud computing will become the norm.

But software for the new usage model must be invisible after installation, too. A customer who downloads an app, uses it once or twice, and then discards it isn't thinking in terms of "applications." Each app is merely a use case -- a context in which the device can perform some action. Add an app, gain some capabilities. Don't need them anymore? Into the trash they go.

Netbook vendors are already taking steps to address this new usage model. New, simplified UIs help to enforce the concept of the netbook as a consumer electronic device like a mobile phone. Eventually, the desktop metaphor of computing may disappear altogether -- after all, what sense does the desktop make when the majority of computing devices no longer live on desks?

So while I agree that the iPhone and its App Store are important, too many developers are getting swept up in the excitement for the wrong reasons. Apple's greatest gift to the developer community isn't cash, it's a free glimpse into the future. The transition into the era of the invisible PC is coming -- in fact, it's already overdue. It will be profound. And for enterprising software developers, it represents an incredible opportunity.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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