You don’t need to be “the best” to thrive

Wired Magazine has an article by Clive Thompson, covering the recent netbook phenomenon. Thompson writes:

But here’s the catch: Most of the time, we do almost nothing. Our most common tasks—email, Web surfing, watching streamed videos—require very little processing power. Only a few people, like graphic designers and hardcore gamers, actually need heavy-duty hardware. For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did. So coders took advantage of that surplus power to write ever-bulkier applications and operating systems.

What netbook makers have done, in effect, is turn back the clock: Their machines perform the way laptops did four years ago. And it turns out that four years ago (more or less) is plenty.

Usage problems aside for the moment–it is arguable whether you do nothing most of the time in front of a computer. One thing is certain, however, that most people do not need a powerhouse to handle everyday things such as checking and writing email, surfing the Internet, listening to music and occasionally watching some videos. Many professional work such as word processing and spreadsheet also do not require as much capability as a high-end personal computer. That’s probably why we witnessed the rise of small, portable computers with mediocre performance but inexpensive price.

Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back, however, it makes me wonder who could come up with such an idea to build an incredibly cheap laptop with low speed. The computer industry has been all about achieving top performance, after all. Semiconductor companies (Intel is the most notable of all) churn out new killer parts season after season, and PC manufacturers would boast that their products are top-notch in the industry–in a nutshell, able to run the highest number of calculations per given time. Delivering a product with lower performance would seem almost an admission of defeat. The system would always put the best-performing product ahead of the rest, as Thompson says,

Traditionally, development trickles down from the high end to the mass market. PC makers target early adopters with new, ultrapowerful features. Years later, those innovations spread to lower-end models.

Instead, what emerged as the new trend is no longer the most robust top dog, but a carefully designed underdog (in terms of performance). Even if the most superb computers can handle a gazillion of programs, all is too abundant if you don’t use them at all. Why bother paying thousands of dollars for something you won’t even be able to use even half the power of? Hence the netbook. The recent financial woes seem to have added even more fuel to the boom, because you cannot expend a lot on your computer and other stuff.

As I have mentioned in another post, affordability may not wholly explain the popularity of netbooks. If price was the only key to the success, Microsoft’s UMPC and Intel’s MIDs would have roamed the streets by now. It might be useless to assume the reasons behind a success ex post facto, I think that the non-economical charm of netbooks had to do with its familiar looks and usability–it’s an affordable notebook! It has got a keyboard! You don’t have to squabble with some tricky pointing stick or struggle to type with bisected keypads. You could just use one with the same level of experience handling your regular notebook or desktop PC.

This implies a lot in terms of user experience, I presume. Though it is often said that novelty is golden, it doesn’t quite apply to what netbooks provide to people. Sometimes you don’t need the highest level of performance you can squeeze out of something, and sometimes you don’t have to see something entirely new. Netbooks didn’t need to be the top-performing workstations to be the latest best-selling products. It could be called moderation but the word seems to fall short on explaining this completely; nonetheless, I am sure this teaches us a lesson on understanding how people use technologies and what they want from them.


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