Opinion: Personal technology is better than personal computing for achieving goals

Among the vast and often confusing number of trends being discussed by technology watchers, analysts, research houses, and manufacturers, the single most important is the one towards personalisation.

July 20, 2011

By Henry Ferreira, Lenovo general manager: Africa

In essence, users don’t care about how what they want to do with their devices is enabled. Technologists can talk as much as they like about concepts such as unified communications and collaboration, platform or anything else as a service, mobile broadband, virtualisation, or the cloud …

All users want to know is that there is some sort of device available that is suited to what they want to do in relation to their life or work or play.

In an ideal world still relatively far off in the future, there could be one end-user device that does everything, including making the coffee, washing the dishes, and ordering the groceries!

But the trend to personal technology isn’t really about a one size fits all device. Certainly, it’s no longer about personal computers. It’s about matching devices to lifestyle choices. It’s about the user being able to plug in at any point on the ever-expanding continuum of technology options that suits him or her.

And enabling that is the real challenge confronting technology vendors right now. They must be part of the technology continuum by offering what everyone else does (or fall behind) while continuously expanding the continuum through innovation.

That’s difficult because ideas, designs, and development tend to happen in pockets, depending on who has the resident genius and who’s prepared to risk paying for something that’s not been tried and tested before. Patents are good for commercial protection but they don’t make for sharing of and collaboration on ideas.

More importantly, perhaps, because development happens in pockets, no-one has really been focused on enabling a continuum of technology that gives users absolutely free choice as to where in that continuum they plug in. After all, you must recover the cost of development and manufacture by selling your own products rather than those of your competitors.

Where’s the computer?

It doesn’t help, of course, that the continuum is so broad and all-inclusive. It ranges all the way from the obvious – PCs, desktops, tablets, and smartphones – to the more futuristic, such as digital TV and digital home appliances.

In fact, the extended range is one of the factors that makes for personal technology rather than personal computing. ‘Computing’ implies working on a spreadsheet, a document, a computer-aided drawing – or anything else we think of as requiring a mouse, a keyboard, a screen, and some software. However, in digital home appliances, for instance, we won’t necessarily see any of those items.

For the user, therefore, the computing aspect of digital equipment of any sort is becoming progressively more opaque and it will simply be ‘technology’. What makes it ‘personal’ technology is that fact that we will have the choice of whether we acquire and use it to do the things that we need in order to meet our lifestyle goals.

Doing is the point

‘Doing’ is the other key that opens the personal technology door. By and large, technology, whether used at work or home, tends to be the territory of ‘do-ers’. People who are focused on getting results of one sort or another will generally use technology as the means to that end.

Sports people, for instance, have to do the swimming or the striking of the tennis or golf ball themselves. But they’ll train using computer analysis of their styles and those of their competitors. They’ll track their performances using computer analysis. And they’ll communicate with trainers, coaches, family, and friends using smartphones.

Teachers use technology aids in the classroom and educational institutions use technology to analyse and report on student results and the institution’s performance. Students use technology for research and collaborative projects.

Entrepreneurs use technology to communicate with employees, business partners and customers, to track inventory, do online marketing, participate in video conferences…

In other words, technology is first and foremost about ‘doing’, usually in relation to very specific goals. Technology is rarely passive.

In the sense, therefore, of all the ‘doing’ that technology enables, it becomes extremely personal – because it is related so directly to what an individual ‘do-er’ wants to use it for. Each do-er brings his or her own highly personal needs to technology and expects to have technology respond directly to those specific needs.

Standardising choice

So, in the world of personal technology, how does the manufacturer operate easily within the continuum and yet retain the ability to differentiate itself from the rest of the market? Ironically, personalisation is its own answer.

Using laptops as an example, not everyone wants the level of performance that, say, a business user would want. That said, someone interested in gaming but who is never going to work on a spreadsheet wants high performance, too.

By the same token, these days, business users want multi-media functionality so that they can listen to music while on a business trip – or watch a movie while they wait for a connecting flight in Europe. Or, indeed, download a business video to YouTube.

So, there’s no way a vendor can say that a machine intended for business use doesn’t need multi-media capability or that a machine intended for a student can do without Instant Resume, which retains a wireless connection for up to 90 minutes, even when the laptop goes into sleep mode.

Does that mean, then, that every laptop must have every capability? Should manufacturers be trying for that one size fits all machine?

Absolutely not. Because there’s the small issue of price. The cost of design, development, and manufacture is one thing. Much more important is what is affordable to the user.

And this is the final aspect of ‘personal technology’. Until we reach the nirvana in which one user device does everything and costs virtually nothing to build and distribute, the level of functionality and performance that will enable a ‘do-er’ to achieve his personal goals comes with a price tag. It is then up to the user to match his finances to the technology most relevant to his goals.

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