Sunday, June 10, 2007

2 Steps Back To Go Forward

While roaming the annual CompuTex show in Taipei, Taiwan this week, two things kept catching my eye at multiple booths amongst a sea of vendors. It wasn’t the fastest new computer processor, the ever flashier tricks of the booth builders to attract visitors, nor the often uniquely creative naming plays of both companies and products. Rather, this year, the two things I kept seeing both held themselves out as the new and upcoming must-have consumer electronics product while both remained firmly grounded in past product technologies. Hence the feeling of two steps back to backward to go forward.

First, consider the half a dozen or so offerings of vacuum tube audio amplifiers on display at the show. Vacuum tube technology was phased out of consumer electronics product, including almost all but the most esoteric, high-end stereo audio amplifiers, years ago in favor of the mighty transistor and its many advantages including cost, convenience, and reliability versus the tube. I mean when was the last time you thought about a tube having to be replaced inside your favorite TV or radio?

I well remember the vacuum tube from my teenage years spent in my grandfather and father’s TV and Appliance store but even then, the tubes we kept on hand were mostly for the repairing of products originally purchased when I was a mere child or even earlier. I confess there was something magical about the vacuum tube that held my wonder back then; the way it would glow and the ease with which they could be swapped out. I enjoyed opening a product brought to us for repair and pulling the tubes one by one to see if the replacements I would plug in could solve the problem. More often than not, that was all that was needed and I could say I “fixed” the problem. It was quite the fun accomplishment for a teenager to claim even though I knew little of the how and why of the vacuum tube technology.

Alas, when my Dad finally closed up the family shop, he sold our final inventory of vacuum tubes on eBay to the highest bidder. If I had any doubt as to the viability of the vacuum tube business, that sale on eBay said it all; the transistor had won and the tube had finally died. Ever since, the race to build ever more portable and rugged products in designs as slim as the newest Apple iPod has been the sole dominion of the power of the transistor. Even many of the high end audio amplifier purists who insisted that the tube was a more “pure” or “warm” sound steadily converted over to transistor based amplifiers. And so, my surprise was very real when in more than a few booths I spied vacuum tube amplifiers being showcased as brand new products.

These clunky and large, in comparison to today’s tiny transistor based products were somehow beautiful looking products. And irony of irony, many of these new tube products had iPod docks built into them proudly promising that the tube amplification would make your iPod sound better than ever when played through your speakers from these tube amps; pretty funny when you think about it. Will the vacuum tube make a sudden resurgence? Probably not, though the nostalgic feel of the product and the soft glow of the tubes in a darkened room mean it’ll probably be a reasonable selling hit. Guess my Dad should have hung onto that tube inventory after all. This old technology just might be new again.

The second product that caught my eye, in a similar yet different vein, was the advent of truly low cost (think sub $200) notebook computers. These machines are far less powerful than today’s standard notebook and are often capable of processing power abilities more in line with computers of many years ago. See the two steps back to go forward trend? And yet, the appeal of these machines was hard to deny based on the efforts of a few vendors to showcase their potential.

The magic of these machines is not in their old technology processing power levels ala the vacuum tube example above, but rather in the way their creators recognize that our external environment has changed radically enough that we can now forgo some level of device power because of the advances in broadband availability and the sheer power and robustness inherent in that availability. Along with the ever evolving web technologies that enable you to do nearly anything from e-mail to spreadsheets with just a browser based product and a good Internet connection, these new notebooks appeal in a very different way to both business and home users.

Given the sub $200 price points (these are Linux, not Windows machines!) these new low power, low cost, low power consumption, and very compact computers can log onto the Net and process away in a manner that most certainly guarantees they’ll be a hit seller. They are also low enough in price that consumers can use multiple units amongst family members or even simply in multiples hanging around the home serving various Net driven functions.
Maybe you could set one on a bookshelf constantly displaying your growing Flickr photo collection from the web or perhaps one will sit in the kitchen only to access your online recipe collection. These machines will spawn new and likely very creative applications and given their price points, consumers won’t be afraid to risk a hundred or so dollars on an application idea that might seem frivolous by todays thousand dollar plus standards. They also won’t worry quite as much about putting such a device in their teenagers’ hands as the investment will be so much smaller than today’s notebooks.

As a business person, more and more, as long as I can get a Net connection, I don’t feel the need to carry my entire office with me in a state of the art notebook computer. However, Blackberry and smart cell phone devices just aren’t practical for the amount of typing I need to do in writing e-mails and reports. So, I’d happily consider trading the bulk and weight of the standard business notebook for the slim portability of these new sub $200 laptops. And given the nearly ubiquitous accessibility of broadband in the business traveler’s world, it seems like a strong enough opportunity that these products should do very well indeed. I know I ordered my first one on the spot at the show. Less processing power instead of more, and the growth of the Net and its related technologies, make this step backward a potentially big leap into the future.

Yes, there was plenty of “regular” business to do at this year’s CompuTex show though I couldn’t help but come away from the show thinking of the ramifications of these two “old” ideas and how they have birthed two new products.