One of the remarkable things about today’s smartphones and tablets is the extent to which they disintermediate and disintegrate longstanding tools and industries. We used to rely on a spate of separate devices: a camera, digital audio recorder, landline phone, video camera, DVD player, MP3 player and various remote controls. All are gone or rapidly disappearing.
Overall, an iPhone or iPad doesn’t perform specific tasks as well as a dedicated device. But 70 to 80 percent functionality is fine for most people. That’s because most of us are willing to make tradeoffs for convenience—one device in our pocket or purse versus several— and almost no one actually uses all the features in any device.
What’s incredible is how feebly most businesses respond to this situation. With their existence at stake, they simply hunker down and continue to build the same products with a few additional wrinkles. And they’re often very technical rather than truly innovative.
The photography industry is a perfect example of how poorly most companies adapt. Kodak has gone bankrupt, while camera manufacturers have watched sales decline. While some erosion of market share was inevitable as a result of smartphones, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Sony and others have done very little to advance photography. At this point, my iPhone delivers richer capabilities—including geotagging and on-device editing—than my far more expensive Nikon DSLR.
In fact, dedicated cameras rely heavily on the same image-capture techniques as film cameras. They’re largely designed the same way film cameras were, but with new features. “They present a lot of limitations,” notes Frédo Durand, a professor in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and a leading expert on digital imagery. “It is very difficult to change the way the camera behaves or the way it captures images.”
By contrast, next-generation computational cameras could capture multiple images with a single snap to compensate for glare, oversaturation and other exposure problems. They could also eliminate the need for a flash, incorporate 3D capabilities, marry video and still images, and address camera shake, particularly in difficult low-light or high-speed situations. The list goes on and on.
Some startups, such as Lytro, offer a glimpse at what’s possible. But multiply this type of design and engineering inertia across many other industries, and it’s not difficult to understand why so many companies are going down the smokestack.
The digital age and digital technology present incredible challenges, and they fundamentally change the nature of products. The first step is recognizing a need to think differently about everything.