Innovation in a Sea of Sameness

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Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every week on Techland.

I came across the term “sea of sameness” a number of years ago while reading a book about differentiation. At the time, I happened to also be analyzing horizontal platforms like Windows — platforms that, when licensed by multiple hardware competitors, create unique challenges concerning differentiation. Although the book was not making observations about consumer technology, I thought the term aptly applied to the analysis I was doing.

It was the early 2000s, and as I was studying the market for personal computers, I had an “aha” moment while looking at a line of notebooks in a retail store. I realized that other than some hardware differences, all the products I observed looked and functioned the same. It was almost like if you had seen one, you had seen them all. This was because they all ran the same operating system and therefore were not really that different. I was looking at a sea of sameness. It’s one of the fundamental challenges with a software platform that is available for all to use.

With Windows 8, Microsoft and the major PC OEMs hope to change all of this — at least in the short term. If you saw any of the product releases from IFA, you saw quite a bit of form factor experimentation from nearly every major PC brand.

(MORE: Coming Soon: 15 Interesting Phones, Tablets and Hybrids)

We saw touch-based notebooks, notebooks where the screen comes off and becomes a tablet, and notebooks where the screen slides or flips around and converts into a tablet. We are seeing experimentation in hardware like we’ve never seen before, and it is all rooted in the challenge of trying to compete in a sea of sameness.

I applaud the work being done by PC manufacturers to try to spark life back into the traditional PC category by differentiating. But I am not optimistic that every variation of the notebook form factor we will see hit the market over the next 12 months will find success. Consumers, businesses and other factors will dictate which products succeed and which ones don’t. As we pare down the overall variation in form and function, it will allow vendors to focus on key designs. The market will eventually settle around those. Whether or not we are headed for a new kind of a sea of sameness around Windows 8 remains to be seen.

Taking Android to the Next Level

We are starting to see Android vendors focus more on innovating in this sea of sameness as well. Hardware features and specs had initially been Android vendors’ only means of differentiation, which is the same problem many PC vendors struggle with. But because Android is more flexible in the ability to customize the platform, many vendors have invested in software expertise to create Android implementations unique to their own brands and hardware.

HTC’s Sense UI is a great example of this. Samsung as well has been emphasizing more unique software implementations. What the company has done with the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet is of particular interest to me — things like software that caters to pen input and a focus on multi-tasking are prime examples of this.

(MORE: Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 Review: This Tablet’s Mightier with a Pen)

Of course it would be easier for many of these manufactures to simply ship the stock Android software stack and not change anything, but this would just create the kind of sea of sameness that makes the market uninteresting, in my opinion.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

Innovating in a sea of sameness is an area where Apple has an advantage. Because Apple is the only fully vertically-oriented company in the tech landscape making its own hardware, software, and services, the company is in a position to differentiate in many ways others can not. Software plays a huge role in differentiation, and when consumers look at OS X or iOS running on Apple hardware, it’s not hard to see that it stands alone.

To some degree I feel this is the driver for the many new Mac customers Apple is getting every year. The appeal of something different lures them to consider switching from a Windows machine. There is something to be said for standing out in the sea of sameness.

When we take a step back and look at the market in the big picture, it’s hard to count any one player in the personal computing landscape out. Not everyone on the planet owns a smartphone, tablet, notebook, desktop or any other type of product we may dream up in the future. Saturation of technology on a global scale is nowhere near 100%. Therefore there’s still a massive amount of growth and opportunity for companies making smartphones, tablets, notebooks and other forms of personal computing devices.

After observing and reading much of what was written last week in regards to the Apple-Samsung patent case, I am convinced there is a huge misunderstanding of what it means to innovate. Sometimes I feel people confuse innovation with invention. Regardless, I’m absolutely convinced that we are entering the most innovative period in the history of the tech industry.

MORE: 12 Unique Computers, Tablets and Gadgets That Are Just Around the Bend

Ben Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every week on Techland.

2 comments
worleyeoe
worleyeoe

"Because Apple is the only fully vertically-oriented company in the tech landscape making its own hardware, software, and services, the company is in a position to differentiate in many ways others can not."

Um. Google is a hair's breath behind Apple, but only slightly. They do design and build their own servers, so it's not a stretch to assume designing their own SoC for consumer electronic devices isn't far behind. And Google has no less than about five major consumer products that it's quite heavily invested in the vertical integration category. For now, it does not make sense for MS to jump into absolute vertical integration.

Like it or not, W8 does represent one of the few innovations in UI design since Apple's iOS broke five years ago. And the MS Surface is certainly a sign that MS can innovate from the bottom of the stack to the top. And personally, I would like to know how much benefit Apple gets from designing and building its own processors. Without such egregious profits margins, it stands to reason that they would quickly jettison this part of their vertical integration.

Be that as it may, I do agree with the overall gist or your article.

benbajarin
benbajarin

Yes I agree and acknowledge that others are trending toward vertical-ization but are not fully there yet.   I still have my doubts that a company can have both a vertical and horizontal market strategy simultaneously.  

On to semiconductors.   I have an unhealthy love of them as I started my career drawing chip diagrams at Cypress Semiconductor.   There are benefits to Apple designing their CPU.   Speak with any CPU manufacturer and they will tell you about how they "tune" their chipset for a specific OS.  Some chipset manufacturers do a better job OS tuning than others but the challenge that a company like TI, Broadcom, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, etc have with Android is that they have to tune to the lowest common denominator because they don't know which version of Android a OEM will choose or use.   

The benefit to Apple is that since they know everything about the OS they can tune their ARM design specifically for iOS.  Therefore they will make architectural decisions and tradeoffs in ways other ARM vendors can not.   Specifically as to optimize the CPU uniquely for their OS.  Often times this will render efficiency in performance, power consumption, graphics etc.   Because it is all designed for one OS package.  

The only real question in my mind long term around Apple's chipsets for mobile is whether or not they go X86 with Intel in their phones and tablets.   I do not believe they will ditch Intel and go ARM for Macs and as I evaluate what Intel is doing with low power high performance I think a case can be made that Apple work with Intel on X86 designs for iPhone and iPad.  OR they do a joint dev deal with Intel to manufacture their ARM designs and thus take Apple's business from Samsung.  

Lots of strategic stuff happening on the ground floor of this industry and for an industry observer like me it is fun to watch.