Views from Phanfare CEO and Co-founder Andrew Erlichson

Link The future of consumer computing

I have long believed that the personal computer, as exemplified by a machine running Windows or the Mac OS is the wrong solution for consumers. The PC is too hard to maintain and exposes too much of its internal working to the consumer. A user is forced to think about the memory hierarchy (disk versus memory) and the organization of the filesystem and its role in permanent storage. Extensible and complicated, the PC is an engineer’s tool.

You need only look to how consumers have taken to the iPhone and iPod touch to understand that a PC is overkill. Give me a good web browsing experience, a decent email client, access to email, calendar, contacts, games and a few utilities and I am basically done.

The rumors are that Apple will be introducing a tablet version of the iPod touch in the fall. This is the right solution for consumers. The touch tablet will probably have an optional bluetooth keyboard, which will be useful for composing longer messages. But what will distinguish the device is not only the touch interface, but also that the computer is an appliance, with no consumer access to the file system and a more limited degree of customization possible.

Microsoft seems to be missing that one half of what makes the iPhone and iPod touch special is not that they are touch driven, but that they run an entirely new operating system not designed for engineers. On a mobile device, touch makes the device more convenient to use for information retrieval, but the alternative on a mobile device is not a mouse, it’s a wheel or trackball.

On the counter-top or desk, a mouse might work fine, but Windows is still the wrong solution.

The Wall Street Journal article reported that MS is investing heavily in getting touch [subscription only] to work well in Windows 7. This is a huge mistake. What Microsoft should be doing, and hopefully is doing, is creating an entirely new operating system that is designed for consumers from the ground up to be easy to use. It should not expose the file system to the user. But MS is so heavily invested in the huge number of apps written for windows that it can’t consider creating an entirely new platform. This is a mistake. They need to leave the baggage behind.

I believe the touch tablet from Apple will herald the beginning of a new era in consumer computing. After that, consumers will migrate away from general purpose computers to computing appliances that provide the applications they need and want without providing the extensibility and associated complication that comes with the PCs we use today. These computing appliances will be primarily based on touch interaction. But more importantly, none will expose the file system, have little icons for the hard drive in the corner or have layered windows.

Personally, I can’t wait for that day. Phanfare already runs on the iPhone and iPod touch by way of our Phanfare Photon app, and by the time they come out with their touch tablet, Phanfare will be at feature parity with our other interfaces.

  • hayles

    Hello Andrew,
    I read your latest blog entry. You sound just like the guy who told me in 1983 that the terminal connected to the mainframe would never be replaced by a personal computer. You are a smart guy… lots smarter than I am but I think you are dreaming. The PC will never go away and be replaced by cloud computing. When you get the web app for Phanfare (Phanfare Web 2.0 I guess it’s called?) as capable as the Phanfare Desktop 2.0 application let me know and will compare the two and maybe I will revise my opinion then.

    I see that you are really emphasizing the iPhone Photon app heavily. I have noticed this for a while and never said anything to you before. I have to say something now. If you reduce your development on the desktop app to the point that it is not growing, evolving and usable I and I suspect a substantial number of your other customers that have been with you for a long time will leave. I won’t leave before I look at your web application replacement, but I think it will be a long time before you will be able to accomplish with a web app what you can accomplish with a desktop app.

    Please don’t abandon the Phanfare 2.0 Desktop app and let it languish in the wind.

    Time will tell which of us is right.

  • Scott B

    Andrew…
    I think you're a little crazy here. Number 1, the last OS we should be touting for everyone to rush to and take all their personal computing needs to is the one from the ipod or iphone. Sure, the iphone is nice, and so is the ipod, but Apple ridiculous level of control they maintain over their devices is horrible. For example, ever tried to get a song off of your ipod that wasn't on your computer? If so, you'd know it's a pain in the butt designed to keep you tied to the ipod over competitors.
    Number 2, while to a certain degree I agree that there is a market for simplified devices — certainly there is a huge market for “engineer” devices, and I don't mean just from engineers — I mean most business people. Maybe that is why MS is not so quick to just trash the status quo, after all, the market segment that relies on the little hard drive icon is it's main source of revenue due to MS Office software.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    The PC works fine with cloud computing. Cloud computing is just the latest description of client-server computing, which has been going on for a very long time.

    My point is that the PC running mac os or windows is a very poorly designed consumer product. or to be more precise, it is not suited for consumers. consumers dont need access to the filesystem. they need well designed applictions that hide the complexity of the device.

    I also believe that consumers benefit from hosted applications, which get their personality over the network. that trend will continue regardless of whether or not a new platform displaces traditional PCs.

    in fact, the phanfare photon client for the iphone is much more like the downloadable windows and mac clients than our webclient is. What makes it possible for us to deploy the photon client and get no resistance to downloading and installing the software is that apple has designed a process that is painless and vetted all apps so that consumers feel more comfortable extending their iphone or touch using third party apps.

    as for phanfare's other downloadable clients, we have not abandoned them, but the consumer has shown on the pc that they prefer apps running in the browser to downloading software from companies. whether the downloadable apps are more fluid hardly matters. what matters is consumer behavior.

    I don't think the pc goes away, but i do think that the introduction of apple's touch tablet will begin the slow whittling away of the PC market share with computers. as a consumer, i hardly care whether my computer is running windows or mac os. i just want my email, my calendar, my contacts, my browser and my utility apps. if I can get all that and have the machine be a pleasure to use and not require me to understand the memory hierarchy and device manager than all the better.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    apple's strong hand is part of what has allowed the machine to flourish. part of the success of the app store is that consumers feel comfortable downloading the apps. that said, i think there will be an answer to the ipod touch tablet that is more open than apple's offerings.

    there is a huge market for engineer's devices, but it is an order of magnitude smaller than the market for simplified devices. when you go into offices, you often see PCs, but many of the workers are using them in very limited ways, running an inventory management or point of sale system. none of this requires a general purpose computer. sure, a hedge fund quant building a rube goldberg device that reads in 3 market data feeds in xml into a black box trading system will use a general purpose computer, but those are a minority of the applications.

    I don't believe the average person using the MS office suite even needs a general purpose computer. the google docs stuff wll be good enough in a few years that most people can just use that. or maybe apple releases iwork for a table device and the “files” are all saved in some db in the cloud. either way, the general purpose computer as we know it, with endless admin panels, configuration screens and a filesystem where i can render the machine unbootable in under 1 min is going to go away for most people.

  • hayles

    Andrew, I think we agree on the simplification issue. I have long complained about the complexity of the file/registry database mess created when Microsoft went from DOS to a Graphical User Interface (Windows) Operating System and I suspect the same complexity is present in the Mac OS, although Apple will vehemently deny that. I also agree with you that there is a larger market for “simplified” machines than “engineer” (your definition) machines for the reason that you state… most folks don’t need all that complexity.
    Where we disagree (and this is not [from my prospective, nor do I think it is yours] a Mac vs. PC debate) is in the concept expressed in Scott B’s comments (above) about “control” over the user/consumer and it is also about “price”. When I first made my decision about whether to buy a PC or an Apple computer in 1982, it was based on availability of software and price. The vast majority, even back then, of software developers were writing apps for the PC and, relatively speaking, almost none of them were writing apps for the Apple machine. Application development was open for the PC and closed for the Apple machine (because Apple wanted control over every aspect of the app… although I am sure you and Apple will argue that point). It was about control to Apple then because it was about profitability (or another way of saying it, it was about price). Apple tried to control the price. Yes they produced a very usable product (more usable that the products produced by the chaotic PC software and hardware development market) and they win that “battle” but they lost the “war”. Why? Because the creativity of the many (the PC software and hardware developers), even though it produced a more complex and less user-friendly (because of the complexity) product, and the the variety of apps and hardware available for the PC made the PC and Microsoft the winner of the “war”. That “control” mentality still exists at Apple today and it is the reason the price is always higher than for a comparable pc (mass market hardware development vs. hardware, Apple only control). That is also the reason that the market share statistics of Apple vs. Microsoft are the way they are today. If Apple could ever realize control and domination of the user/consumer does not work in the long run (even thought it produces a less complex user interface and “better running” apps) then they will begin to increase their market share. The best example of this is when they started embracing the diversity of PC apps out there by going to the Intel chip so they could run apps developed for the PC. That is when their market share started to improve. The price is still too high, for reasons mentioned above.
    So this debate is not Apple vs. Microsoft or anything like that, it is a about a company culture of “closed” vs. “open” hardware and software development that we are disagreeing on here. I know you will argue the “vetted” apps in the Apple store point, but it is still Apple controlling what is happening in the hope of controlling the consumer to Apple’s and not the user’s benefit. That does NOT work. I cannot think of a better example of this “control culture” than AOL, but SONY is a close second. AOL has already “failed” and SONY is not that far behind them. The sooner Apple realizes the “control” business model does not work the better off Apple will be. And that “control” reason is exactly the reason I disagree with you about your choice of platforms for The Future of Consumer Computers.
    Okay. You are not tied to Apple. You state that and I believe you. In the simplified world of computing that the mass market consumer needs maybe “some” of this kind of control “may” benefit the consumer, but Apple and their culture of controlling the consumer has got to give way to the open way of hardware and software development which the market has demonstrated (by market share) as the only business model “they” will accept, before your concept of the future will fly. Pick another company, or convince Apple to change its culture and then maybe we will agree on ALL of your blog post.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    I am a big believer in the ideas expressed in Porter's book on competitive strategy.

    Porter believes that there are two generic strategies for making money: to be the low cost provider and to be the differentiated provider. the low cost guy usually winds up with the majority market share (walmart) which he defends by lowering price against any would-be competitor. By holding the low-cost position, they can always offer a cheaper price than the competition.

    On the other side is the differentiated provider. that provide offers something unique in the market place, often using higher cost ingredients, and is able to charge higher prices based on the uniqueness of the solution. They offer the best and if you want the best, you pay the price.

    the differentiated provider (Apple, BMW, Tiffany) usually has a minority market position but that position is sustainable and profitable.

    Apple fits the definition of the differentiated provider very nicely.

    The issue of whether to offer an open platform or closed complete solution is orthogonal in my mind. Apple won with a closed system in music players, although I admit that it is fare for the differentiated provider to win the majority market position.

    for touch table home running a simplified OS, I think there is a possibility that Apple will do what it did with the iPod: win with a closed proprietary system that costs slightly more, although in the long run, I believe someone with a lower cost position than apple will dominate.

    I don't believe that apple is the minority player in personal computers only because they are less open. I think price is a big factor, but if you have the DNA/cost position of a ferrari maker, the last thing you want to do is try to sell at walmart prices.

    Phanfare has the same challenges. We are absolutely trying to produce a better cloud-based photo and video sharing system, not the cheaptest. We archive and keep in near storage all those full size bits that are expensive to maintain. On price, we are more expensive, but we believe we are better. we don't expect to have a bigger part of the market than photobucket.

  • hayles

    I see your point. I really do.

    Phanfare is not expensive. In my opinion it is a very, very good value. I value all that it provides to me. Unlimited storage for $55 per year is a great deal! I don't know, because the market determines this over the long run, but I hope your pricing and business models work and I hope that Phanfare is in business for a very long time. I am betting by entire photo and video collection on Phanfare and your business model. I wish us both luck in Phanfare's success. I think you will succeed or I would not leave my valuable photo collection in your hands.

    I has been great talking to you on this subject Andrew. You (and your colleagues) have built a very good company and I certainly am enjoying the fruits of your labor.

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  • Darryl

    I posted this on the forums, but I thought I'd add it here too, for fun:

    http://www.theonion.com/content/video/apple_int…

    Seriously — a full-sized tablet, but no keyboard? Puhleeze. Have you ever actually tried to use one of the Windows Tablets? Nevermind the lousy OS. It's about the inputs.

    Sure, on an iPod Touch or iPhone is great, because you're primarily *browsing*. You're in line, you're on the bus/plane/train, whatever. You play games, you watch a movie, whatever.

    If you need to work, if you need to post a comment to a blog, if you need to send an e-mail, use a spreadsheet, *anything*, you need a keyboard.

    So fie on your tablet computer. Fie I say. :-P

  • Darryl

    [Ok, I see you mentioned Bluetooth keyboard. But are people really going to want to carry around another piece of hardware? And I do recall that there were some nifty swiveling screen Windows tablets that did have a keyboard too. But when something gets as big as a laptop, it feels more like a clipboard that you have to cradle. From a human interface perspective, the fact that an iPhone/Touch is small allows you to easily use your hand(s) to navigate the OS. If you had to use the same UI on a 12-, 13-, or 17-inch tablet, I think it'd get annoying.]

    Boy though, that new Pre from Palm looks nice though, huh? :-}

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    most people dont do that much input. i envision a hybrid device. if used on a desk or counter, you could certainly use the bluetooth keyboard to compose longer messges. but for typing search queries, URLs and short messages, the onscreen keyboard would be fine.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    first, most consumers dont use spreadsheets. second, most consumers dont comment on blogs. and this may surprise you but for a short message, on screen keyboards are fine. for longer messages, use a bluetooth keyboard. consumers are so named because they mostly “consume.”

  • Cory

    I don't think there is anything inherently bad about an onscreen keyboard. It all depends on the implementation. The onscreen keyboard on Window tablets that I have tried are horrible, first because they needed a stylus ( is that true of all of them? ), and second because it's a very heavy laptop, heavier than any normal laptop, so it's not meant to comfortably hold in your hand unless you work out regularly. Also the tiny onscreen keyboard seems to appear in odd locations on the screen.

    The iPhone onscreen keyboard is definitely a generation past Windows tablets so I don't think it's even fair to try to compare them. The keyboard appears where your fingers are, you can use fingers, and the clicking/enlarging when you press tries to make up for the lack of tactile feedback. I just tried typing the same paragraph on my blackberry ( which currently has no service, but I kept as my alarm clock since I hate the set ringer so much it gets me up in the morning ) and my iPhone. The problem for me is just accuracy. I can pretty much get to the keys and type at the same speed, but because the iPhone buttons are so close together I end up with a wrong characters when I finished. I didn't have any typos on the blackberry. I think that on a larger tablet with room for larger keys, that problem will go away and I'll be able to type at a pretty reasonable speed.

    Of course I'm a Star Trek guy, so I think the flat touch tablets that I became accustomed to seeing in the movies/tv series are still on the way since there are many other common pieces of technology today that look like things writers in the 60s dreamed up.

  • http://blog.phanfare.com erlichson

    On screen keyboards lack two things: tactile feedback so that you know you have hit the key once, and some sort of layout that you can feel with your fingers. I think it is the latter that will prevent on screen keyboards from ever being quite as fast as physical keyboards.

    I need to look at my iphone keyboard when I type, but I look at the screen on my blackberry and on a computer when I type. The reason I look at the keyboard is that I can't reliably hit the right key without looking at the keyboard. note that this *might* be solvable on a table by putting two small bumps on the glass so that at least your finger can find the home row.

    In any event, I dont think mainstream consumers do all that much input. I actually thing that a spreadsheet would be usable with an onscreen keyboard. I hunt and peck for symbols anyway. But i don't think you can expect someone to type 10 pages on an onscreen keyboard.

    For a home tablet, I think many consumers may never even buy the bluetooth keyboard. I doubt it will be included. That is just my guess.

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