In the original ‘Jurassic Park’ movie (which will be 20 years old this June), the young girl Lex Murphy (played by Ariana Richards) asks Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) what happened to the dinosaurs. Dr. Grant replies with the thesis from his academic works (as quoted here):
Many scientists believe the dinosaurs never really died out 65 million years ago. These scientists believe dinosaurs live on today — as birds. The dinosaurs were too large and their food supply was too small, so the dinosaurs became a likely example of natural selection — in short, they were forced to adapt or perish.
The personal computer already experienced a large tectonic shift, evolving from velociraptor to sparrow in just a few years. Back in 2007, end-user computing looked very different from today: It was a simpler world of form factors, operating systems, and ecosystems. Even so, in 2007 we predicted:
By 2012, the industry won't include just two form factors, laptops and desktops, but five or more form factors that are universally viewed as differentiated products.
We were correct, and computing “biodiversity” bloomed: smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, eReaders, phablets, and form factors that peaked and fell quickly (like netbooks). In fact, we are living in an era of unprecedented experimentation — a flowering of myriad computing form factors attempting to carve out their own evolutionary pathways. The descendants of the velociraptor include a wide array of connected devices, each blazing its own trail.
Extending the metaphor further, we can ask: which species will rule the genus? As Wikipedia puts it: “Homo sapiens... are the only extant species of the genus Homo.” Homo erectus, Homo rhodesiensis, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), and other, now extinct branches of the extended human family lived in the past. They were out-competed by modern humans.
While the platform wars will remain vigorous, another set of Darwinian battles are being waged inside ecosystems (or genuses): Forked vs. standard Android, for example.
Microsoft is — like all competitors in the market — in the midst of an "adapt or perish" transition. We are all familiar with Microsoft's attempt to move users to Windows 8. But that's not the only interesting evolutionary struggle. It's important to also look at intra-genus speciation: The Windows ecosystem is producing an astoundingly wide array of devices, from megafauna to niche competitors, including (but not even remotely limited to):
The sheer diversity of options that have evolved in the Windows 8 device ecosystem means two things. First, would-be buyers and users face a dizzying array of choices and, consequently, confusion. Second, these users also have an opportunity to find the device that fits their usage case impeccably. These are two sides of the same coin; you don’t get the positive effects of specialization without the negative effect of market confusion.
Survival of the fittest means that only some of these form factors will survive... meaning that many of them will fail. Competitors within a genus will win on characteristics like user experience, brand, bundling, market segmentation, and channel. But some of them will surely find their niche. Others will die off, victims of the evolutionary competition, eclipsed by form factors that compete better. (Something quite similar — and in many ways even more fragmented — is happening within the Android genus as well).
In an "adapt or perish" world, when people ask “What happened to the PC?” the answer might well be “It evolved into that 7-inch Windows RT tablet in your backpack, and into that 27-inch Windows furniture PC in your office,” in addition to “survival of the fittest left Apple’s iPad the apex predator” and “Android devices led to habitat loss for the PC.” An ever-evolving PC will still be the right tool for the right job, even if it lives alongside numerous other species of computing devices. Anticipate both form factor failure and form factor diversity side-by-side over the next few years.
J. P. Gownder is a Vice President and Principal Analyst. Follow him on Twitter: @jgownder