Today, a device’s ecosystem trumps feeds and speeds

I was all set to buy an Android tablet the other day. I even had it in my Amazon shopping cart. But then I abandoned the cart — just walked away and left it in the virtual aisle.

If you know anything about me and my relationship to gadgets, you’ll recognize that as pretty unusual behavior. I love gadgets, and I confess that when you strip away the various rationalizations I might employ to justify purchases, sometimes it comes down to the coolness factor and raw performance. Actual need doesn’t always factor in.

What had caught my eye was the ASUS Transformer Prime. It has a powerful Tegra 3 processor and an intriguing dock/keyboard combination that supports USB devices. It seemed unique, interesting and versatile. In short, just the kind of gadget I’d purchase.

So what held me back? The Transformer’s specs promised stellar performance. I have never been able to say no to any device offering such powerful feeds and speeds. But a new set of criteria for judging devices has entered the picture. And here’s where vendors might need to worry: It’s not just me who’s employing these new criteria. It’s pretty much everyone.

The problem isn’t that Moore’s Law has broken down. The observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the density of semiconductors doubles roughly every 18 months still seems valid. Technology is always gets better, faster and cheaper, and if anything, today’s rate of innovation seems to be on the scale of minutes, not months. Things that I can purchase today were as realistic five years ago as the notion of beaming up to the Starship Enterprise.

But those sorts of innovations don’t seem to matter as much as they used to. Quick! What’s the processing speed of the CPU in your phone? How much RAM does your TV have? How many pixels does your PC monitor drive? In the past, we tended to have the answers to these questions on the tips of our tongues. Now, very few people do.

The more important driver of device adoption today seems to be the ecosystem of applications, services and cloud offerings that form a penumbra around the device. Hardware specs and performance are just the table; they might tempt you to put a device in your shopping cart, but they aren’t enough to make you pull our your credit card. In the case of the ASUS Transformer (and most other Android tablets), the ecosystem is lacking in many ways. And that’s why the tablet market can be roughly divided into Apple and everyone else. Competitors can come out with devices that have the edge over the iPad’s performance, maybe they can even match the highly touted Retina Display. But until they can match Apple’s complete end-to-end ecosystem for applications and personal cloud services, along with its consistent user experience for accessing those services, they aren’t going to make much of a dent in Apple’s market share.

Long ago, I developed Gartenberg’s Three Laws of Consumer Electronics:

1. You can sell 50,000 of anything.
2. If Gartenberg sees a product at a demo and doesn’t offer his credit card for purchase immediately, the product is doomed.
3. Even if Gartenberg does offer his credit card, the product may well still be doomed, since Gartenberg is part of the 50,000 who will buy anything.

Today, I’d add a zeroth law: Even the coolest gadgets can’t be sold in even modest numbers unless they offer value well beyond the out-of-box experience and great hardware specs.

Selling even 50,000 devices just got a lot harder.

Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

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