The Device Era is Over

The Device Era is Over

No, I’m not putting my neck on the line and declaring that nobody on the face of Planet Earth will buy another computing device ever after midnight tonight, as might be inferred by my rather inflammatory title.

What I refer to as the “Device Era” is not that of devices’ continuing existence, but rather our society’s infatuation with a slowly incrementing list of features and minor design tweaks that compelled us to constantly spend large sums to remain hip amongst our friends. Perhaps, more elegantly, this was the era where several new form factors were designed and broke through the public’s conscious, seemingly addressing uses cases that we had never even considered before.

Take PCs, the “base” smart device. Popularized with the Mac back in 1984, these powerful implements have been exponentially improving in performance for more than three decades. Along the way, a branch broke off to create the notebook segment, but by and large, these were used for the same, general purpose tasks, eventually forming the backbones of businesses, schools, and home offices everywhere.

Then something happened. PCs were too good. Around the turn of this decade, with hardware finally at the point where the average Joe wouldn’t be able to notice another hundred MHz of performance, sales finally plateaued. Upgrade cycles got stretched, and desktop OSes like Windows 7 and Mac OS X had everybody content. PCs were no longer a growth category.

You would be correct in saying that a lot of that buying power and interest was then funneled into the tablet craze started by the iPad in 2010. Tablets quickly became a hundred million unit category. Then, two hundred million.

The plateau arrived even faster, with 2014 marking both the 4th year of the tablet era and the first year over year sales drop for the category. A drop that has continued to accelerate alongside that of the neighboring PC industry.

So, smartphones. Since 2007, humans have bought 5 billion of the devices, steadily approaching our total current population. Apple, Samsung and a few other manufacturers smartly rode this wave, squeezing more and more computing power into impossibly thinner and thinner devices. But, this year, the same thing happened. Smartphones got good enough. The industry’s growth has slowed to a stutter.

For each of these form factor paradigms, we have reached a peak. Each form factor is close to perfect with what it can achieve. The hardware industry is attempting to address this by mashing different features and different devices together, but success stories like the Surface are few and far between.

This has hurt innovative manufacturers and device designers such as Apple and Samsung. For the past half decade, Apple was the most coveted company on Wall Street. No longer, with a search and software giant focused more on what’s running on and behind our devices taking the crown. These days, software companies and developers dominate the innovation conversation, looking to make their code sing on the stage set by the latest devices.

So, welcome to a new “App Era.” Or “Software Era.” You get my point.

The “Device Era” couldn’t continue because we just aren’t sure what’s next. Wearables? Smartwatches? AR? VR? Who knows? Each of these concepts still feels early or half-baked. The general public just isn’t interested yet.

Don’t fret. Like all things, these eras come and go in phases. Just as we only saw software innovation for the first few years of the PC era (before Moore’s law really started to kick off), so too will we see such innovation dominate our existing tablets and smartphones. Some day, another category will take off and a handful of manufacturers will dominate the public’s imagination with the promise of new features and exponentially better experiences.

Will it be smartwatches or VR goggles or something else entirely? Nobody knows. And that’s what’s most exciting.