At the tail-end of last week Benedict Evans wrote an excellent piece about the changing definitions and roles of "mobile devices." My Instapaper feed was pretty backed up this week, so I only just got to his writing this morning - and as I was reading through it I was hit by some striking similarities. Similarities looking back to about a decade and a half ago when there was another shift in the industry, and the definitions of different products had to change.
But first let's get a bit of context for where my thoughts formed from.
"If mobile is not where you are, or the network connection, what is it?"
"There's another obvious way to define this - 'mobile' means no full-size physical keyboard, a small screen and an OS that doesn't do multitasking... well, except for the 'mobile' devices with keyboards, large screens or (now) multitasking. Steve Jobs told his team an iPad was just an iPhone with a big screen. Hence the problem: what exactly is the difference between an iPad Pro and a Surface Pro? Are they both 'PCs'? We know somehow that they are different, but what is the difference that's important? How are either of them different to a Macbook? To a Lumia running Windows 10 that's plugged into a keyboard and screen? Is that Lumia different to a Mac Mini plugged into a keyboard and screen? Why? You can't use the screen size or the keyboard to define 'mobile' as distinct from a 'PC'."
"On this basis, instead of thinking of 'tablets and smartphones' as one category and 'PCs as another, we should think of larger screen and smaller screen devices. That is, you will have something you carry with you (a 'phone') and may or may not also have something with a larger screen that stays mostly at home or in your office. In the past you might have chosen between a laptop or desktop - today you choose between a laptop, desktop or tablet, depending on what you want to do with it. That is, perhaps we should think of tablets as being as much 'PCs' as desktops and laptops are."
Now back out to those similarities I was talking about.
While reading Ben's piece I was struck in a way I hadn't been before by just how dated the terms we're using to define, group, and differentiate computers are. Laptops, desktops, tablets, PCs, mobile devices, phones - all these things are converging in that what you can do on them is more and more universal. And more than ever before it's a matter of choosing between the different available amenties of each device - be that screen size, hardware keyboards, or portability - to fit the task at hand.
When you don't think about it too hard you won't notice, but trying to group computers into "Desktop", "PC", or "Mobile" definitions just doesn't work anymore. Is a Surface Pro a mobile device because it bills itself at least partly as a tablet? Or is it a desktop PC because it's able to run a whole host of traditional desktop apps? And come to think of it, isn't a smartphone just as personal a computer as my laptop? Ugh, my brain hurts just trying to draw all these imaginary lines between the different sectors.
This is about where I was in my thought process when I was reminded of back in 1998 - just after Steve Jobs had returned to Apple. Since he'd left the company in 1985 Apple and their products had gone completely awry - spawning dozens of lines of products that either overlapped their marketing and target users, or didn't have an intended market at all.
It was a mess, and while today Apple isn't in quite as deep of a hole as they were back in the 90's - there are some similarities. Products like the new 12-inch MacBook and the iPad Pro are so close in appearance, capability and specification that if you squinted you might not be able to tell them apart. They both multitask, they both have beautiful high resolution displays, they're both almost impossibly thin and light, and yet one is considered a desktop and the other a mobile device.
It's confusing, and Ben makes it perfectly clear in his piece that I'm not the only one thinking this way. Apple themselves haven't clearly defined what makes these two devices target different markets, and people like Ben and I can't define it either. It's not as severe today, but it's a very similar sort of mess.
Back in 1998 Steve came through with a solution. Behind the scenes he slashed the majority of Apple's active products and worked with Jony Ive and his teams to redefine their products and create a much more clear and concise strategy. That year at MacWorld we saw the result of their efforts - the Four Quadrant strategy was born.
Consumer desktop and portable, and Professional desktop and portable. At the time it was simple, clear, and allowed for each of Apple's customers to easily find a device aimed at them. The Four Quadrants - and the products that fit into them - fixed the problem.
Unfortunately the days where the Four Quadrant strategy made sense have long passed. We now have phones in our pockets, tablets in our bags, and laptops on our desks - with different people opting for different combinations of each to fit their needs. All the while the lines between these categories are blurring, and it's high time for some clarification.
Much like in 1998, we now need for someone to bring forward the next Four Quadrants. If I could tell you what that would look like, or what the categories in it would be, then I'd be writing a very different piece to you all today. Unfortunately, all I can tell you is that things are confusing now and only getting moreso. We need someone - be it Apple, Microsoft, Google, or some other company - to again redefine how we think about computers. We need them to bring into focus what needs fit into what category - or categories - of computers, and there need to be products at the ready aimed at those different needs.
For my sake, yours, and the companies whose products we love - I hope it happens before they all manage to dig themselves as deep as Apple did in the 90's. We need some of that simple, Four Quadrant clarity once again.