The Sub-PC

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 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:

(Sample size: 2,000 US adults.)
Web and e-mail are used at least weekly by almost everyone, followed by office productivity (word processing, spreadsheet) and games. The most striking finding is that most people rarely use many of the PC’s features that require the most expensive hardware — video, imaging, photo editing, music, etc. It seems blindingly obvious that if you strip out those features, you could create a really inexpensive computer that would please most people. Cool! Build a billion of them and we’ll conquer the world.
Don’t ask what they say, ask how they feel
Asking “what do you use most often” is misleading because it doesn’t tell you what people are willing to give up. People celebrate New Year’s only once a year, but try banning it and see what reaction you get. The right way to look at the question is to ask how many people never use a particular feature. That gives a completely different picture:

Except for video editing, the majority of people use their home PCs for almost every function at least occasionally. The audience for a sub-PC starts to look a lot smaller. But the picture gets even tougher. Some people who don’t use a feature today believe that they might use it in the future. By omitting a feature, you’re preventing them from ever using it if they decide they need it. Combine the loss of features they sometimes use with the loss of features they might use, and for most people a sub-PC starts to sounds like a major step down from a PC.
Some people might still be willing to consider it if they got a very large benefit in return. But instant-on and a few hundred dollars price cut isn’t nearly enough to justify giving up all the flexibility and potential that people get from a full PC.
The lesson
The benefits of a product aren’t just what people do with it–they’re also what people think they might do with it. Ask any SUV buyer.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply