The Gadget Graveyard
Here's a list of gadgets you're never going to buy again:
- A TomTom satnav (just use your smartphone)
- A Apple iPod (just use your smartphone)
- A Nokia candybar phone (just use your smartphone)
- A Nintendo Gameboy (just use your smartphone)
- A Flip Video digital camcorder (just use your... you get the idea)
Similarly an old school candybar is a voicecall appliance and a Nintendo is a Gaming Appliance (or a get-kids-out-of-hair appliance, depending on your situation).
These things tend to be damn good at doing one thing, but pretty useless at something else.
And in the long-run they are all dead.
Why computers will take over the world
Appliances tend to be associated with the cutting edge. When a new consumer technology, be it GPS or MP3 playing comes along, it is relatively expensive. In order to bring it to mass market you need to make it as cheap as possible. This is where an appliance comes in - by making a completely dedicated device its the cheapest way to package a new technology up at a consumer price point (for an example of a current cutting-edge appliance, check out the Lytro Light Field Camera).
So an appliance tends to offer two advantages. 1) it is generally cheaper. 2) it is very good at performing its role because it is built as a dedicated device.
However as a technology matures it tends to get cheaper. This means it becomes cost-effective to fit it onto a General-Purpose Compute Device. A smartphone is a great example of this. It's a camera, satnav, Gameboy, camcorder all in one! Oh and it also makes phone calls!
Similarly a laptop fits the bill (It plays games! And runs spreadsheets! And browses the web!). As the name suggests these tend to be programmable (and usually have a less specialist device) which means they can be used for a number of different functions. Most have some sort of open platform so new programs can be built to run on top of them.
Now these general compute devices aren't quite as good as a dedicated appliance at performing the job in hand (advantage 2), however you get to a point where the 80/20 rule kicks in. Sure a professional minicab driver needs a satnav and a pro photographer needs a digital camera. But for 80% of us its more than good enough.
And its at this point that the market for the particular appliance crashes:
The charts above show the declines in revenue and volumes for TomTom satnavs and Apple iPods. Both were single-function appliances that were monstered by the rise of versitile touchscreen smartphones with GPS and NAND flash storage (TomTom's were monstered so much that the company actually stopped disclosing volumes and standalone revenues from the start of 2010, so embarassing was the decline!).
This situation is the nightmare for any incumbent appliance manufacturer. On the one hand they generally have good products, for their function and a significant brand presence.
However their expertise, by definition, is very narrow which leaves them ill-equipped to produce more generalist devices. Typically they will not have much of a platform or eco-system built around their device. And finally the companies which make general compute devices tend to be larger and already have significant brand muscle.
In short you face a bunch of new competitors which are better than you and bigger than you.
In general I have seen two responses
- Bury your head in the sand and pretend the threat doesn't exist. (TomTom, Nokia, Flip)
- Try to build your own general compute device. (Garmin, Playstation/XBox, Apple)
The first response inevitably ends in disaster. Once generalist devices get good enough the market is moving inexorably against you, and you simply do not have the time (or the capital) to catch up.
The second response often ends in disaster. Garmin tried to build their own Garmin Phone, a laughable ambition given they were up against Apple, Motorola, LG, Sony Ericsson, Every Man + Dog.
However sometimes, if you're smart enough, it succeeds:
Profiting from disruption
Of course this creates great opportunities for the investor - both by shorting the roadkill, and by being long the winners. And as I have written about before, the beauty of this is that once a company start to move into a structural decline there are often ample opportunities to short because these are multi-year events (normally ending in some sort of real or potential balance sheet distress).
And where to find the next appliance story? Well simply go down to your local Currys or Best Buy and look around you. Off the top of my head here are some that spring to mind:
- Televisions: The biggest appliance out there, in every way. With the rise of internet-connected devices this is the obvious compute platform for the modern home. Everyone, from Apple to Google to Sony is frantically trying to work out how to do this. Because whoever owns the TV-computer will own the biggest advertising billboard in your life.
- Games Consoles: It is interesting to see how XBox and Playstation has been repositioned over the last few years as connected appliances / stealth set-top boxes. Of all the Appliances currently out there these have the best shot at evolving to general compute appliances. On the other hand Nintendo seem to remain focused on just doing games - a grievous mistake IMHO.
- Radios: The venerable Audio Broadcast Appliance has had a long run, but at the point internet coverage becomes truly ubiquitous (believe it or not we're not quite there yet!), the radio is dead. Although I will miss having the shipping forecast interrupting Test Match Special - the iPlayer version doesn't include it.