Thursday, April 14, 2016

April 2016 Observations - My Invisible Upgrades

The times have been exciting for me lately, at least in terms of the geek side of my life. For the first time in nearly two-and-a-half years, I have recently upgraded my Apple iPhone, and after reconfiguring offices about a year-and-a-half ago, I have swapped out my main “desktop” PC, which I had already owned for a while but was moved up to the starting rotation in late 2014. While these and similar exchanges seem to always turn out to be more work than initially planned, and usually leave one with a lingering, haunted feeling of “what have I forgotten that will now be lost forever?”, these two nearly completed upgrades have been remarkably smooth, and similar in one particular way - they are both relatively “invisible”.

I realized after a day or two that the “Invisible” in my description has to be traced in part to my sub-conscious recall of a nearly 20-year-old but still well-known technology/industrial design book named “The Invisible Computer”. Its author is Donald A. Norman, a prolific writer and opinion leader in the area of technology product design and user experience. Norman made a brief career stop at HP during the late 90s* when I was fortunate enough to get to know him a bit. While one of his other titles, “The Design of Everyday Things”, is better known and more highly rated, Norman’s ideas on “Invisibility” are surely the subliminal inspiration contributing to the favorable assessment of my recent experiences. A list of Norman’s quotes from the book include, among others, 
“As the technology matures, it becomes less and less relevant. The technology is taken for granted. Now, new customers enter the marketplace, customers who are not captivated by technology, but who instead want reliability, convenience, no fuss or bother, and low cost.” – Chapter 10, The Invisible Computer, Donald A Norman.

Invisible Upgrade #1 – Apple iPhone SE

One old, one new - which is which?
Apple’s “next big thing” announcement in March of this year may have fallen flat in some quarters, but it got my attention. Anticipating the event, now that I am an Apple Watch wearer, I was interested in what might follow a year after its initial launch. But in reality, my curiosity had been piquing more at the media anticipation that Apple would unveil a new, smaller phone, which seemed fascinating if only in the fact that it seemed so contrary to the bigger-screen trend of the past few years.

Sure enough, the SE confirmed that rumor, and photos showed it looked just like the trusty iPhone 5s I have used faithfully since the end of 2013. In 2015, I had actually initiated an upgrade to one of Apple’s larger form-factor phones (6+) but returned it only a day later, not liking the larger size and really the whole feel, and concluding I was still a happy, satisfied member of the iPhone 5s installed base!

The March announcement described the iPhone SE, as smaller than their recent phones but exactly the same size as the 5s. The idea of my favored form factor combined with the latest performance and features, at least the majority of those features, got me to make the move. As Walt Mossberg summarizes (a bit in defense of Apple and the criticism by many of an offering deemed less-than-spectacular), “The idea, of course, was to make it irresistible for the diehards to upgrade.” If that makes me a diehard, so be it – Mossberg hit the nail on the head, and I couldn’t resist. I am now a couple of weeks in, I love it, and the upgrade has been so “invisible” that the new one even fits into my old 5s case!

Invisible Upgrade #2 -- Desktop Replacement Computer

I am not as far along with the upgrade taking place on my desktop, with my previous “Desktop Replacement” computer being replaced by a newer “Desktop Replacement”. This category is characterized by Windows-based computers (at least that’s all I could find when searching), that look like laptops, but are big and powerful enough to replace traditional desktop computers, which are typically in a tower form factor of some sort. Along with the “big and powerful” comes a laptop (in some places even dubbed a “notebook”) that is really more than I would ever want to carry around or travel with.

Old (background), new (foreground) - spitting images?
The old one has worked for me for quite some time, but the strain has been showing, so a good deal on an HP Envy moved me to make the change. Little did I realize when I ordered it, though five years newer than its predecessor, that it would appear physically nearly identical, even when taking into account one of the big features I have been looking forward to having – my first desktop with a touchscreen. Inside, the numbers are all up, in some cases way up, in terms of internal memory, disk storage, and CPU power. But with both running Windows 10 (the old one was upgraded last summer), I look forward to a smooth finish to this upgrade too, and like with the new iPhone, I relish having fewer sluggish moments and enjoying more overall “headroom” leading to increased personal productivity.

So what does it all mean for printers, the focal point for many of my Observations? Can the industry expect to prosper selling new printers and MFPs to the installed base, focusing on the new hardware’s improved speeds and feeds? When individual and group productivity can be improved, the argument can still be made – I am an example. The more physical similarity, the better. I think it’s a bit like the old saying about what makes a good haircut, something like “the best haircut is one that makes it look like you haven’t had a haircut.”
And that “Desktop Replacement” category I have accepted and taken for granted for so many years? The more I think about it, I realize it’s like a product concept we kicked around at HP years ago, for a new laser printer, the “dot matrix replacement”. It was one of those where we on the internal team all knew what it meant, but as far as providing insight, guidance and inspiration on our next product’s ability to meet customer needs, it was meaningless. More on this topic coming!
Norman, D. A. (1998). The invisible computer: Why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
*I know that many of my readers are current or former HP employees, as I was for 25 years, leaving in 2005. (With my second career as a blogger/analyst covering the printing and imaging industry, I have covered HP so much that it sometimes seems like I have extended that 25 an additional 10+ years.) So for those readers in mind, I am including this from my research for this post, as an appendix of sorts. My hope is that some will appreciate, as much as I did, Norman’s amazingly frank assessment of his stop as an executive for HP, back when I got to know him a bit. This is straight from his LinkedIn profile, regarding his time with HP (1997-1998).
“Spent a frustrating year with the mission to establish new products in the "information appliance" arena. Such a nice company, but nobody was empowered to do anything. and the one project I got engaged in was a complete disaster: enough to populate a comic novel. I finally quit out of boredom. HP was such a nice company that they wouldn't let me quit: it took me week to convince them to let me go. Today, HP is doing much of what I hoped to do then. But then, it was independent fiefdoms (divisions), none of which had sufficient resources to do new, bold ventures. Today, HP is structured very differently. Then it was a dull, dead company. Today is appears (from the outside), to be vibrant and thriving. (My friends tell me that the old culture still exists, still resentful of the changes. Culture is hard to change -- but HP looks like it might make it.)”

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