Another muse on future of computers

I went through a bunch of memories the other day. Specifically, I reviewed science fiction and computers — not where the computer is a character, but where it’s a tool. Often it’s not even mentioned, it’s just a tool that gets used.

In that light, the iPad gets a lot better. Oh, it’s still lacking physical storage for when you don’t WANT to beam your data for all to read. And while broadband wireless is wonderful I still think the ability to wire into the net is a very good idea sometimes. But the pad itself? Real, real close. And that kicked me a bit further down the road.

See, the one thing that’s missing is voice. Sure, sometimes you type (or wave wands or write), but most of the time one option is just talking.

That’s there – for the Mac, and for the Windowboxen both. There is, however, a small problem. The problem is it’s a single company for both, and there are no competitors of note. There aren’t any competitors because Nuance has bought them out. There are some academics working on things, but the ones that pan out get purchased by, yep, Nuance. And the problem with this is that Nuance charges too much.

Nuance has the keys to the kingdom, and it’s letting them rust. The problem is that they’re stuck in the wrong profit model. I understand why, but they’re screwing themselves.

To understand this problem we need to look at a tale of two cities and their fiber optic development. In this case two REAL cities – Calhoun Georgia and Dalton Georgia. Calhoun started wiring its city for fiber optic about ten or fifteen years ago. When they started, they decided they’d charge so they covered the costs each year. As a result if you were an early adopter you paid HUNDREDS for the install and more hundreds (yes, plural) per month for your connection. Because of the price, there weren’t many buyers, and because there weren’t buyers the expansion went, well, slow. In fact, after about a decade less than 15% of the city had fiber.

Dalton chose a different model. They gambled, and decided to make an assumption. They estimated the cost of covering the city, determined what they’d need to charge to pay if 60% of the city used the line, then added the additional cost needed to cover 5 years of loss while the 60% bought in. In other words, they ran a deficit on the present under the assumption the gains would more than make up for it in time. As a result the cost was… I spent less than $100 per month for a connection faster than a T1 line plus telephone (VOIP) plus cable over fiber, and paid a whopping $40 for the last mile connection. I wasn’t alone, and the city had its 60% in two years instead of five. It was affordable and available and everyone wanted it.

Return to Nuance. Dragon Naturally Speaking and MacSpeech aren’t perfect. They are, however, pretty good. They allow not only dictation but a lot of computer control – start this program, choose that option, open that file, save, print, jump to there… you get the idea. “Jeeves, search google for cold soup recipes that use sweet potatoes.” beep. up on screen, or read aloud, but THERE. See? Get it?

Of course, there’s also the problem of getting people to buy. And here, we hit another joyous issue. That’s the problem of differentiation for computer manufacturers.

Look. Today in the world there are two types of computers: Macs, and the other boxes. If you’re one of the top guys in HP or Dell or Acer or any of the others, this is your main ulcermaker. To the average consumer the differences are less than the differences between Ford and Toyota. To get an idea of this, head to your local Big Box Store — Walmart or Best Buy or anything like those — and look at the laptops (for example). You’re going to see two or three almost identical cases with almost identical headline components (drives, memory, etc) from two or three manufacturers, each with almost identical pricing.

There’s no real way any of these hardware assemblers can differentiate their boxes with hardware. There’s no particular brand loyalty because there’s nothing on which to hang that loyalty. What all these companies really want is a [me] tag — something that turns the race into [me] and Apple and the rest. Bluntly, it’s not coming from hardware.

One avenue is service, but they’re all again running neck and neck there. And any special sales programs are going to be examined and duplicated within a few months.

I don’t think any are going to do it, but the avenue I see glaring is called Nuance. It goes something like this: HP (to pick a company) talks Nuance into offering a Major Exclusive Deal. The advantage for Nuance is that while they’re losing money per package they’re making it up on quantity. Then HP puts Dragon Naturally Speaking on Every Single Computer. Yep, it costs more than the other guy’s computer, and that’s going to hurt. On the other hand, “Our computers listen to you.” And for two years (three if I can get the right deal) only HP (or whatever company does this) gets the Major Deal price. Sure, you can put DNS on other computers, but you pay the old (big) price. And Nuance can still sell the upgraded packages — or offer them at discount through This Company as the case may be.

Of course, This Company can’t sit on it. It’s going to have to build on that lead – optimizing the boxes for the process being a major example. (hmm. Burn DNS onto a RPROM and dedicate part of the processor stack – or even give it a separate processor on the board? The possibilities …)

Here’s the funny thing. Even if nobody does it, we’ll get talking computers. We’ve got a bit of it with expert systems answering phones. (If you’ve called tech support for most major companies you’ve encountered the soothing voice that asks, “OK, now tell me what the problem is. I’m sorry, did you mean…?”) That expert system is going to get better, and its going to drift. Nuance and a company can grab this now, or they can wait a few years and be Xerox looking at the mouse.

The future is here. It just has to get our attention.

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One thought on “Another muse on future of computers

  1. Pingback: Mental Meanderings

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