Wanted: Innovation and Evolution for the Desktop
Evolution produces some strange outcomes. Along the way there are mistakes and miscalculations until eventually, one design element, accompanied by luck and merit, helps a species make it to the next rung on the evolutionary ladder.
But when it comes to desktops, we seem to have hit an evolutionary barrier. We've known for two decades that voice, data and video would all mush together. Now that's actually happened, but we still haven't come up with the next-gen desktop alternative.
There were some early attempts--in the late '80s there were PCs with handsets hanging off one of the sides, but that design was clearly a mutant. You see variations of this model on financial trading floors but, thankfully, it never made the mainstream.
And that’s a good thing, because whatever converged desktop experiments there were prior to about 5 years ago didn't account for two key requirements. From the vantage of 2012, it's clear that mobility, in particular, smartphones and tablets, is destined to be an important design element in whatever the eventual desktop console thing-a-ma-jig will be. Similarly, up until a year or two ago, video was "too far out there" to be a centerpiece of desktop design; today, video is taken seriously, very seriously.
So we seem ready to see the sprouting of a yet another branch on the desktop communications evolutionary tree. In a recent post on No Jitter, Phil Edholm couples Cisco's pullback on Cius with Avaya's relative silence about its ADVD, to posit a new need--a desktop base/docking station that is built with mobility and video as key design requirements.
Edholm shows a concept that is long on comprehensiveness but short on sleekness or charm; I can't decide whether it'd make Steve Jobs laugh or cry. But at this stage in the desktop’s evolution, it's less important that the eventual 21st-century desktop look good than that it is designed to handle the right jobs; on that score, Edholm's design is worth examining.
The concept, he notes, "integrates a low-function phone capability (for when the tablet is not present), along with features that optimize desktop use of a tablet. Integrated microphones, speakers, adjustable bracket with tilt for both landscape and portrait modes make this ideal for optimizing use of a tablet in the office. The positioning of the tablet and its camera at head height eliminates the hulking and nose-hair video typical of today's video phones."
Clearly, this is a design for people whose work keeps them on the move and who consider voice calls to be their second, third, maybe their fourth choice for communications. And there's no question that the number of candidate users in that category is rapidly expanding, which creates both the risk and opportunity for the vendors: If you're in the communications and collaboration marketplace, what is your desktop play?
Cisco may be giving up on Cius and Avaya isn't spending much to promote ADVD, but neither has shown any inclination to give up on phones. At least not yet.
Edholm argues that unless the UC hardware vendors eventually wean themselves off phone hardware revenue, they run the risk of becoming "the next Wang, once the leader in a system technology (word processing) that devolved to became only a part of an applications suite…. If the focus is on retaining a hard desktop presence like the phone, then, just like Wang and its disregard for the PC, the UC vendors may become less and less relevant. Building a better phone with a better display is probably not the key to success."
Edholm is certainly not the first to make this argument, but his distinguished career with Nortel and Avaya gives him considerable credibility in this debate. While the UC vendors all claim that software drives their businesses, it's also true that phone hardware still accounts for about 35% of a new system acquisition.
Since evolution rarely gets it right the first time out, we need innovation as well.