Fri, 09, Aug 2002 07:28:00 PM

by Charles Miller on August 9, 2002

I wanted to reply to perspectivism, but my response was too large for LJ to accept, so I posted it here. This is the original post

A wonderful example of working backwards from predetermined conclusions.

Some ideas are spun off from the personal computer1 into consumer devices. Those that are, are done so because the consumer device offers something (form factor, interface) that the personal computer does not. So you get the portable mp3 player because you can't fit a PC in your pocket, but all mp3 players synchronize against a personal computer. You do all the complicated interactions such as importing the music and setting up the playlists on the computer, and then the portable player sucks that data in and allows you to walk around with it.

I've never encountered a stereo component that plays mp3s. If you want that, you can plug your computer into the stereo.

If there's any stability to mp3, it's because so many consumer devices support it, not vice versa. mp3 is threatened by the open-standards Ogg Vorbis from below, and from the copyright-enforcement-DRM-Disney-DMCA goons from above. mp3 is as volatile as you get, but some consumer device manufacturers took a punt on it because they could produce something that wasn't there before - a box the size of a pack of cards that could hold your whole CD collection.

Games consoles predate the PC. Before there was Apple or Microsoft, there was Atari. In the 80's, there was the big console crash, and everyone moved to the personal computer. There were lots of different personal computers, from IBM, Amstrad, Commodore, Sinclair, even Atari came out with the (pretty damn neato) Atari ST in the late 80's. The IBM-compatible always had the fastest core, but the rest made do by being cheaper (because they were integrated packages, instead of the component-built PC), and having specialised features such as dedicated graphics and sound chips.

In the general computing arena, the differentiator was Microsoft. As DOS gave way to Windows and then Windows 95, the ubiquity of Microsoft killed off the usefulness of owning any of the competing products except for playing games. The Amiga, for example, realised this and tried to produce a "games machine" (the CD32), but by then, the big players in the console arena, the Nintendos and Segas, and Sony looking for a piece of the action, rediscovered the advantage they'd lost in the 80's. As the computing market returned to "You run Windows, or you're an Apple Mac, or you play games", the consoles found their niche again.

You can't say that gaming has "stabilized" in any way since the 80's. Hardware continues to advance at the rate of Moore's law. Each generation of consoles supersedes the one before. People still play games on the PC because a mouse and keyboard give you so much more control over what you're doing. The consoles haven't killed the PC, they've complemented it. There's no stability there, there's just a segmented market.

There've been many attempts over the years to produce a word-processing appliance. And you know what? They've all been boxes with a screen and a keyboard. And this is why they've failed. Nobody's going to buy something with exactly the same form factor as a personal computer, but that only performs one, very limited function. Get away. Who's got room in the house to have one device that's a Word Processor, one that's a spreadsheet, one that does email and Internet...

The personal computer is an expensive, annoying box that is distinguished by its flexibility and richness of interface. If you can sacrifice the interface, you can make the box cheaper and less annoying, and spin it off into a more convenient product. But the simple fact is, sometimes we want to be able to do complicated things, such as organise our collection of 2,000 mp3s into playlists, and you just can't do that on a consumer device with an interface that is less rich than the personal computer.

Apple had the right idea. They positioned their computer as the "Digital Hub" - you use your consumer devices, your digital cameras and mp3 players and PVRs and whatever, but when you want to do anything complicated with all that information you've gathered, you plug them into your Mac and the Mac will make sense of it for you, and allow you to move everything around with a keyboard and mouse. And you know they got that idea right, because Microsoft immediately copied it.

[1] I try to say "personal computer" instead of PC, because PC implies "IBM compatible", or more recently, "Wintel".

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