Then came the PC and the power was transferred to the masses. And so began a cycle of technological development that takes us up to the present day. The cycle moves between the server side and the client side, moving backwards and forwards between the idea of centralized power and localized power in the same way that you often see the power base shifting within companies between centralized and localized functions.
After the PC innovation, power moved back to the server with the advent of the internet, then moving back to the client side with the rise of powerful web applications (what became known as web 2.0) and then back again to the server with the rise of the cloud which brings us bang up to date.
So what’s with the history lesson you might ask?
Right now I believe we are at the cusp of the next big transition, which will take innovation back to the client side. There are two main elements to this next wave of innovation. Firstly, there was the arrival of the Internet of Things which is finally filtering down from the early adopters. This will herald huge changes in the kinds of data we can harvest and how we use it. Secondly, and the area we are concerned with in this piece, is a major shift in how we use devices – one that will see small devices become the focal point for the digital world, a world that is going to become even more connected and even more embedded in our lives.
At the moment most of us still use a multitude of devices every day. Over the last few years the number of internet connected, mobile devices that each of us possess has grown. Ten years ago, we would have been lucky to have one. Smartphones were in their infancy; some of us might have had a laptop with a dongle but that was pretty much the extent of it. Now, in the western world, most of us have at least four (I certainly do). Phones, music players, tablets, laptops and watches… not to mention those a little less portable like TVs and cars. Now we are starting to see that number shrink again as device limitations are removed. Now instead of a watch, a Fitbit and a music player we can have one single device. Devices with a single function are becoming obsolete. And this marks the start of a trend, which will see the convergence of functionality into a few, powerful devices.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have fewer pieces of kit. Where would be the fun in that? But what it does mean is that there will be a significant increase in the computing power and functionality that will sit on a single device, which will then connect with other devices to perform certain functions. Rather than having a separate desktop, you will simply plug your device into a screen and it will then perform the desktop function. As the Internet of Things develops in parallel, the functions within the device will continue to increase. We are already able to adjust the heating and lighting in our homes remotely through our phones and as more and more of the things around us become connected, more and more of it will be controllable from this central device.
The idea of the modular device is not a new one (docking stations have been around for years) but such is the range of functions we are now looking to devices to contain there is renewed interest in how you make this practical. The Ara project from Google is an example of how this challenge is being met but we are also starting to see a plethora of totally new devices arriving on the market through organisations like Kickstarter.
For marketers, the next wave of device-led innovation presents some serious challenges. Not only do they have to think about how they are going to tackle the new range of devices that are already on the scene (like the Apple watch) but there is no surety now about the form of the next wave of high function devices that are coming down the pipe. We can look at what companies like Microsoft are doing with the new generation of Surface devices and where Apple is going with the Apple 6s, but what we cannot plan for is the yet unknown devices from unknown companies that could disrupt the device market with the speed of an Uber or an AirBnB.
The fact is marketing is going to have to have a close eye on the direction that device design is heading in order to ensure that the experience consumers get of their brand is the right one, whatever device they are on. These days, tech savvy consumers could be just as likely to be looking at content on a watch as they are on a tablet. Some companies are already trying to break new ground on their device led marketing - think the Amazon Button which enables consumers to reorder their favourite items when they run out with a single click. This kind of innovation is about future proofing your marketing - innovation in devices need not be disruptive.
The fact is that none of us really know where all of this is going to take us but what I do know is that no-one can afford not to pay attention. As with all races, even if we are not quite sure where the finish line is going to be, or even the route we are going to take, we know that investing in a decent pair of running shoes is a good idea.