The Optimism Of The Gadget Maker

We are at a strange point in whatever economic upturn we’re experiencing in the world economy. Things aren’t quite “right” yet, many are still out of work, and the general sense is that business spending has flatlined. However, things are looking up. How can you tell? Gadget makers are advertising again.

During the dot-com bust, and more recently during the housing crisis, gadget spending tanked and, as a result, gadgets on the aggregate were boring retreads of the same old stuff – laptops, monitors, tower PCs, and phones. Cast your memory back to 2008 when things were just getting rough. What were the the most popular devices? Netbooks: me-too machines made for the price-conscious consumer. There is nothing aspirational about a $500 6-inch EEE PC.

That’s all changing, however. The sense that gadget makers are looking at better balance sheets came during CES 2011. While the show was a snooze, you had a renewed sense of optimism that radiated from the booths lining the hall. All of them were packed and the events we attended were well-staffed and full of quasi-new merchandise. Things are changing for the better.

I believe, however, that we’re entering a new, optimistic era in gadget manufacturing. The first inkling that things were changing was Apple’s cancellation of the “I’m a Mac” ads. The ads, at their core, were mean-spirited: you use a PC so you are a dork. Microsoft followed quickly with the Laptop Hunter ads, cleaving to the current trend in public discourse of dismissing alternative ideas outright. The general gist was that this stuff wasn’t earth-shattering so the only way to differentiate was on some nebulous concept of quality and a sense of outright divisiveness.

Now, as evidenced by the video above, manufacturers feel we are entering a new era. They see an era of profit based on service sales (witness HTC’s investments in OnLive) and every product they create is life-changing. The Motorola Atrix phone, for example, with its odd laptop dock and powerful processor, is an idea that would have never taken off at a product meeting a few years ago. I’ve also noted that the Parrot AR.Drone was the product of a diseased mind, a device that has no reason to exist in a company once dedicated to Bluetooth headsets.

In short, manufacturers are taking risks. They’re taking a risk on the Xoom tablet by selling it for $800. RIM is taking a risk on the Playbook. Apple is moving aspects of iOS into OSX, changing what could be perceived as an entrenched technology in a drastic way.

This isn’t an entirely new thing, but any company that would equate a new tablet with a break from conformity is clearly marketing to a new audience. The nerds of yesteryear are gone, swallowed up by Firewire cable, and their love of speeds and feeds is diminishing. Today even Elton John is talking about the iPad 2. These are strange times to be a geek, mostly because almost everyone you meet is even geekier than you.

How long will this new optimism last? Well, as long as people are buying – or thinking about buying – manufacturers will provide. Not much has changed in the technology, but the words we’re using to describe it (“revolutionary,” “magical”) are changing and that means manufacturers are finally getting their groove back.