Products that are features are going away


Sometime in the year 2014 the number of people using mobile Internet devices will surpass those using desktops, at about 1.6 billion, or 22% of the world’s population. Because most humans are unlike office workers in U.S. metros and spend their days actually moving around, handheld devices are the future of communications. To meet this peripatetic need, device interfaces are getting smaller and simpler.

Which means convergence is coming.

TomTom, Garmin and other GPS makers will be the first victims. Berg Insight reports that global shipments of “personal navigation devices” will crest in 2011, and then slump as GPS map functionality becomes a feature, and not a product, of handsets and car dashboards everywhere. The destruction of once-cool products is nothing new. Google Maps chewed up businesses tied to online directions. Microsoft erased Netscape by making a web browser part of its operating system. iPhones and the Droid are cannibalizing the camera industry by making photography a feature of a mobile handset. The list of once-hot products that really were attributes to be absorbed elsewhere is long: Kodak film, portable game players, Word processing programs, snow tires, home-cooked meals.

Now consider the list of current products that are likely to fade into broader systems. USB drives. Camcorders. Radios. Web browsers. Netflix envelopes. The United States Postal Service. Eyeglasses. Twitter. Each business seems insurmountable for a given time, until one of two things happens: A market entrant arrives with a better product that swallows the old one (Facebook being the one to watch here, communications subspecialists); or a new service ecosystem is born that spreads its branches over old products (the Internet digesting letter mail and bill presentment).

This is all a natural evolution, because products have to go through a period of rapid innovation and experimentation to be born and adopted before they settle down to common interfaces, which in turn are swallowed by a few leaders. The next victims are likely Foursquare and its LBS kindred, clever systems that help you find people in real space that are really just a feature waiting to be tacked on to a better network (hi again, Facebook). Yet even massive players face the same threats; Microsoft reigned over computers for three decades, but cloud computing may kill its software core. Facebook could rule for a decade more, but if your social graph becomes truly portable and owned by you, you’ll no longer need its portal. Businesses defend themselves with several shields, including innovation (hello, 3-D disc players), entanglement (damn you, wireless termination fees), or ensnarement (hmm, a Facebook Like button all over our favorite websites). Similar to vitamins, these tactics help companies live longer, but never forever.

Shrinking visual inventory is giving Darwinian consolidation a push. We look at products with our eyes; products are becoming mobile; mobility diminishes space. As billions of consumers connect more frequently through small mobile devices, they will want a convergence of services that fit in their hand. These same people have limits in their minds of how many products they can learn and use daily, so the power laws that apply in adoption of any product (how many watch brands can you name?) will drive consolidation into a handful of leaders. Why would you want to learn Mint.com, as good as its financial-house-in-order help is, if Facebook Banking could make your finances as easy as chatting with Sis?

The great irony of our age is that after two decades of massive digital experimentation, we may end up with simplified glass tablets that do everything, accessed via a few monopolistic services. The web is fragmenting into a million devices, but those gadgets in turn are consolidating into a few major systems. Click and tap. We want it all, especially if one button will suffice.

Image: Frans Persoon

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