The deceptive allure of the sub-PC

Something I wrote for Rubicon Consulting:

The cancellation of the Palm Foleo marks the latest in a long string of failed attempts to create a market for keyboard-based devices that are smaller, simpler, and cheaper than personal computers. Computer companies have been trying to make sub-PCs work since the 1980s, but the only place I know of where they have been a major success is in Japan, where the complexities of typing in Japanese encouraged many people to buy cheap word processors instead of typewriters.

Why do so many companies keep trying to get under the PC market? And do they have any chance of success? The answer is a lesson in the right and wrong ways to think about product strategy.

Listening to the customers

Anyone who has ever done research on PC users quickly notices a striking pattern--most of the features of a PC rarely get used. Here's a typical result from a research study asking US adults which applications they use at least once a week on their home PCs...

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Anonymous said...

This analysis assumes the sub-PC is somebody's only PC.

For a secondary ultra portable PC, I think the problem has mostly been this:

1. small
2. useful
3. cheap

Pick two.

Anonymous said...

As mobile phone networks mature in the third world I belive we could start to see a market for inexpensive web surf/communicator devices with built in GSM and/or 3G data purchased by people without the means to buy an allout laptop PC.

The key here is inexpensive; the idea being to put them in the hands of persons who would otherwise be without. What I am thinking of is different thatn one laptop per child. I am thinking more small bussiness people who need the communication capabilities to maintain and grow there business not school children.

I fear that hardware companies will not release not because they do not see the market but because they are concerned about canabalising sales on full function laptops.

Anonymous said...

I think you'd get very different results if you asked people how they used their laptops.

London Pickup Artist said...

I thought the Palm Foleo was terribly ill conceived.

I would have told Jeff Hawkins that he needed his head examined on this one. We owe him a lot though in other respects.