I was up in Boulder, CO this past weekend for a wedding and had the chance to catch up with some old friends from New York. One friend, who I worked with at a Dot Com back in 2000, is two months into a new job working at … a Dot Com.
"We're working on the same stuff we were working on ten years ago," she told me with a laugh. "Wasn't anybody working on this during the last ten years? Why hasn't anybody figured this stuff out?" The "stuff" she was referring to mainly centered around the problems of serving big chunks of data to small screened computers over slow connections. Ten years ago that meant last-generation desktop PCs and dial-up modems; now it means last-generation smartphones and unreliable 3G cellular connections. Everything old really is new again.
Me, I got into covering cell phones for PhoneDog about four years ago for many the same reasons I got into covering laptops for PowerBook Central about fourteen years ago. Just as the rise of laptops as desktop computer replacements meant that applications like text, image, audio, and even video editing could be done from anywhere, the rise of smartphones as always-on mobile computers means that connectivity doesn't have to stop when you close up the laptop and leave the house/office/cafe.
What's funny to me is that my friend pretty much nailed it: We are more or less constantly working and re-working on the same problems when it comes to connected computing and Web-based content. Back in '00 the Dot Com we worked for struggled with serving up snazzy design and Flash-based multimedia content to customers reliant on 800 x 600 pixel monitors and dialing up to the Web via America Online. Now the Dot Com she works for, and the companies I report on here, struggle with serving up snazzy design and Flash-based video content to customers reliant on 320 x 240 smartphone displays and cellular connections that all too often hop back and forth between 3G and EDGE without any warning.
Sure, some of us back then had state of the art tower computers and home DSL lines just like some of us now have Snapdragons and 4G antennas in our mobiles. But the lowest common denominator has to rule when designing Web content for the masses, even if us tech blog wonks sometimes don't get it.
No matter, though, the point is clear: Smartphones are the new laptops (are the new desktops). Jean-Louis Gassée illustrates in yesterday's Monday Note that the money to be made in today's computing industry really has shifted from desktop and laptop PCs to smartphones. Maybe you're tired of hearing about Apple, already, but there's good reason for that, according to Gassée:
Apple makes $3B of profit from its iPhone while HP takes in a mere $500M on its PCs—that’s a 6x difference. The Center of Money has shifted
And yet the Center of Design Tasks really hasn't shifted that much at all. Well, animations have become video and Flash is becoming HTML5, but still - it's all about moving data quickly without alienating the masses. You know, the ones relying on yesterday's technology in today's mobile connected world.