The mobile hardware plateau: Driving bizarre form factors

The mobile hardware plateau: Driving bizarre form factors

Summary: The hardware in mobile devices has become so powerful that OEMs can no longer innovate what's inside to be different. This is leading to strange form factors to make products stand out.

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Not that long ago mobile hardware makers were locked in a battle to produce hardware that jumped over the competition. Mobile processors led the charge in this battle with OEMs racing to be the first to market with products sporting the latest and fastest hardware.

The processor race ran hand-in-hand with graphic hardware innovation as companies sprinted to bring good video capability, namely HD features, to mobile products. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones were rushed to market with varying HD video capability in an attempt to release devices better than the rest.

We've reached a plateau in the mobile hardware world that is making it hard for vendors to set their products apart from the crowd. Mobile processors are now so powerful they can handle anything expected on a mobile device. Dual-core and quad-core processors are the standard on everything from phones to laptops.

There is a mobile hardware plateau, and it is indeed a plateau, that makes it difficult for mobile device makers to produce products that stand out in the crowded field.

Integrated graphics are now found on everything that can handle the most demanding HD video playback and recording. High-resolution graphics are now the standard on all mobile devices and are expected by savvy consumers.

To go along with the powerful processors and graphics, storage memory on mobile devices is now measured in gigabytes. Even the least expensive smartphones have tons of storage and system memory.

This mobile hardware plateau, and it is indeed a plateau, makes it difficult for mobile device makers to produce products that stand out in the crowded field. It's the same in all mobile device categories: smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

The only hardware criteria OEMs can use to make products different is form factor. That's why we are seeing a rash of gadgets in different sizes and form factors. Consumers aren't demanding devices of all shapes and sizes, the OEMs are looking to be different and that's the most visible way to do so.

Because of the hardware plateau we have giant smartphones like the Samsung Note 2. The company is making something that is obviously different from the competition's smaller handsets. They even threw in a stylus, an old-school accessory, to round out the differentiation.

That's also why we currently see a boatload of smaller tablets. The original iPad's success in the market led to a lot of competing tablets but the hardware was similar. Smaller tablets were the only real way to visibly stand out in the crowded tablet market so they are appearing everywhere.

Nowhere in the mobile space is the hardware plateau so impactful as in the laptop segment. Not too long ago laptop makers were able to make thinner clamshell devices to stand out. Now everything is thin so we are seeing bizarre forms. Laptops are appearing in droves that are bendy, twisty devices that can be used in rather strange ways.

I'm pretty sure consumers haven't demanded a laptop that can be used in "tent mode", but we're starting to see multiple products offering that very thing. Producing a thin laptop is not unique enough so OEMs are making them work in strange and in some cases uncomfortable ways. Consumers aren't asking for this, it's just happening because the hardware inside the devices is all the same.

The hardware plateau is why we are seeing so many "hybrids", the thin laptops that bend and twist around to become a tablet. This isn't new, Tablet PCs have been around for a decade. Consumers didn't demand them then, they didn't buy them in volume, and they aren't demanding them now. That's not stopping them from appearing in every laptop maker's product line.

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As if these contorting laptops weren't bizarre enough, there's even one (so far) that has two separate displays. One display is used in standard laptop mode and the other activates when the screen is closed to become a tablet. Just what consumers wanted, a laptop with two screens but with only one active at a time. No matter that other hybrids simply twist the screen around so the one display is used in both laptop and tablet modes, this product has two displays adding cost and weight to the product.

It's understandable that OEMs have to scramble to make distinctive products since the hardware under the hood is basically the same. The hidden hardware is extremely powerful and everyone has it so they have to do something to be different.

Choice is a good thing so this is not a complaint, it makes it certain that every consumer will find a form and function they desire. It is fun to watch happen and to try and figure out what OEMs will come up with next to stand out. Some sort of folding Origami form that does who knows what I'll bet.

See related:

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Smartphones, Tablets

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39 comments
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  • Wrong

    What is driving innovation in hardware design in the Windows ecosystem, is Windows 8 and its touch first interface. Hardware performance is not stagnating as you suggest, as processors, and PCs themselves are still increasing in capability. PC hardware is now innovating around providing touch capabilities to PCs, of various form factors.

    Surface RT so far seems to be the most interesting innovative PC device. My guess is that when Surface Pro is released with Windows 8 Pro, sales will really take off, as most PC users regard backwards compatibility as being extremely important to them. I think it's really interesting how pundits give Surface RT lower than deserved marks, when ordinary users typically rate it much higher.

    http://reviews.cnet.com/tablets/microsoft-surface-rt/4505-3126_7-35332494.html
    P. Douglas
    • The fan boys dream world

      Failing to even acknowledge the importance of smart phones, tablets and the cloud, exposes you as nothing but a MS marketing shill.

      Your post does not deserve a rebuttal beyond that.
      D.T.Long
      • Ok, we are fanbios

        but what about you? Are you not fanboi of competing technology, whether it is Apple, Linux or Android or whatever? Your posts on Microsoft threads don't have any validity either. Now go back and reread your posts on Chromebook written by James and that tells you are also a fanboi of Google.
        Ram U
        • I am a freedom "fan boy"

          Google currently does the best job is that regard. All corporations strive for "world dominance", but Android builds are open source and the code posted for hackers to work with. Google's prices are very good and their products/services are meeting more and more of my family's needs. If they want to spy on the stuff we will store in the cloud in exchange for very low prices or free, they can go right ahead. They will find it pretty boring and not very valuable.

          My entire approach is highly rational, even if you cannot see it. I do not see why I would spend my money helping a corporation achieve "world dominance" if there are alternatives that meet my needs. If someone chooses Apple or MS based on need, their behavior is highly rational and appropriate. If you are an Apple or MS fan boy, you are an idiot, unless you are a share holder, in which case a disclosure would be appropriate.
          D.T.Long
          • Perhaps I should add/edit

            ..unless you are a shareholder OR employee, in which cases (a) disclosure(s) would be appropriate.
            D.T.Long
          • you mean 92% of the world is full of idiots?

            I got it.
            Ram U
          • No, but you clearly are

            Just re-read my post.
            D.T.Long
          • Also google is there for making $ not a freelance

            Did they disclose their search algorithm anytime? Tell me if Google is not there making $, I will take your comments fully, otherwise you are also in one of the idiots camp.
            Ram U
          • Like I said...

            re-read my post, SLOWLY, this time with your fan boy glasses off.

            Why does it look like you are responding to someone else's post?
            D.T.Long
          • "Trust Me"

            Your logic reminds me of Kurt Russell in Used Cars - "Trust me!" Your defense of a fragmented OS that cannot even get OEM's or carriers to routinely update the OS, absent Google selling its reference Nexus brands at a loss, is hilarious.
            dksmidtx
      • Trolling again

        Fandroid and cloud shill, the cloud isn't as good as you would believe.
        hoppmang
    • You've Got to be Kidding!

      I would say by your comments that you have not used an RT; it's slow, clumsy and generally difficult to use. I would expect the Pro to be disappointing as well. Love my new Nexus 7!!

      I'm glad you're not my financial advisor with "guesses" like yours . . .
      Gr8Music
      • Missing Douglas' point

        Windows XP, 7 and I'm sure plenty of others have been on touchscreens. We both know they never took off. Would you want to use the default OS X or the default *nix flavor on a touch screen? Sure, there might be some obscure *nix build out there, but the reality is that without being touch-friendly, devices don't sell, which means OEMs have a low-price war and release relative junk. Having played a few of the hybrids, my favorite being the Yoga, I have to say it is impressive. If Apple launched it, jaws would be on the floor. Since it says Windows, apparently people just shrug and wait for the next big Apple thing.

        Go ahead, love your Nexus 7. You're using touch-friendly software and the defacto build of a tablet. The article is more talking about laptop design anyway.
        ikissfutebol
      • Obviously you didn't use Surface

        I have two Surface RTs at home. They are fast, chilling and easy to use. I would expect the Pro to be more appropriate to a lot of users out there. Love my Surface RT.

        I would say by your comments, you never tried Surface RT and probably wont. Why do you lie to promote your Google paid shill.

        I am also glad you are not my tie and coat dressed financial adviser with "biases and hypocrisies" like yours . . .
        Ram U
      • Not my experience

        Surface works great, isn't slow and clumsy but my guess is you have never used one. Keep living in your bitter little troll world with your version of fragmented andriod you are running. Last android device I had was slow, clumsy and unintuitive, and I did own a crapdroid phone.
        hoppmang
    • What's innovation if nobody cares?

      You yourself said most "PC" users will opt for the Surface Pro because they view backwards compatibility as being extremely important to them. SO what's the purpose of the Surface RT? Just to serve as an "interesting" innovative device?

      Any company can build an interesting innovative device, but if noone really cares for it what's the point?
      dave95.
      • but how do you know if anybody cares

        unless you build it and sell it.
        Nobody cared for a tablet till Apple built a good one.
        Nobody cared for a phone till Bell built it a hundred years ago.
        ForeverSPb
        • History

          History already proved consumers didn't care about Windows PC tablets, whether it's ARM-based Windows or Intel-based. Microsoft and OEMs didn't have to build it (again) to have an idea how it would be received by the public. Like you said, nobody cared for them until Apple introduced their take on what a tablet SHOULD be. Here comes the Windows tablets again with form factor that's been tried many times before.

          Apple did not simply build a tablet and ship it to see how it would do, they did extensive research and development and waited for the right time to ship. And they did not build their tablet around their desktop OS that's filled with complexity (two UI to navigate and gesture overkill). They introduced something NEW and simple for consumers to use with the iPad. That was when consumer finally took to tablets, modern tablets based around mobile OS, efficiency, less complexity.

          What these companies are doing now is shipping any and everything they develop in their labs just for the purpose of differentiation. To stand out from the pack. We see the same thing happening with Android OEMs.
          dave95.
      • kind of like a

        Chrome book, another google failure.
        hoppmang
  • Hmm

    So basically PC OEM's are throwing anything and everything at the wall to see what sticks and slapping the word innovation on it. I wish they'd spend time coming up with one or two devices that are really great and stop worrying about "new" and "different". I just don't see the market for laptops with multiple screens, or tenting a laptop to use the touchscreen. If I'm using a tablet I want it to be super thin and light, not the weight of a laptop.
    Rogifan