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Devices and Platforms: Special-Purpose vs. General-Purpose January 8, 2010

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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Two articles in the Journal today – both CES summings up, on e-books and on Internet TVs – along with that looming product announcement from Cupertino, got me thinking about the pros and cons of general-purpose versus special-purpose devices and platforms. When you’re evaluating the evolution of things like PCs vs. netbooks vs. tablets vs. e-books vs. game consoles vs. TV sets vs. smartphones – you’re all doing that, right? – don’t forget a few planks for your frameworks:

  • General-purpose doesn’t always beat special. See consoles vs. PCs for gaming
  • “Open” doesn’t always beat closed-loop. Ditto, and TV set-tops and phones, so far
  • GP advantages: flexibility, leveraging existing bases of apps or other ecosystem elements
  • Special-purpose advantages: optimization

Let’s dwell on that special-purpose device optimization angle for a few bullets:

  • User interface/experience: a Tivo is a better video program guide than a PC, but it’s pretty lousy for managing your music collection. And look how well Windows works on phones
  • Cost: some things are better off without the Wintel tax, and hardware and software licensing and costs can aim for optimal tradeoffs
  • Form-factor: some things need to fit in your pocket; and do you really need an 11″ color screen to read a book?

Does this mean I think e-books will beat tablets or smartphones? Not necessarily. I’ve been a Kindle user for over 18 months, and I’m a huge fan. I occasionally use my iPhone to read Kindle books, but will never default that way. But I doubt $250 e-books are ever going to be mainstream consumer products. And as James McQuivey tweeted earlier, there’s still a lot of innovation coming.

Likewise, Michael Gartenberg correctly tweeted that we should all remember that e-books aren’t just about devices, but their surrounding ecosystems. Regular readers will remember the old “platform” definition.

JupiterResearch defines a “platform” as a set of core technologies and services that other applications and services, from other companies, can use. These core technologies often include application-programming interfaces, file formats, user interface elements, and, these days, syndicated Web services. Google extends the notion of platform to include revenue streams or business models – for example, paid search and keyword-based contextual advertising – that partners can plug into. Platforms spawn economic ecosystems and feedback loops, and are solidified by habitual usage. Successful ecosystems must offer value to all links: user, partner, and platform provider. Paid search epitomizes that kind of win/win/win situation.

Here’s a behind-the-paywall link to an oldie but goodie on Google’s platform approach back in the day. And Barry Parr applied the concept to understanding online media networks.

What do you think? Am I all wet on the value of specialization?


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