The comments on Nilay Patel's review of the iPad Air 2 for The Verge reached a wonderful, if slightly off topic, level of discourse the other day:
I want to buy a MacBook because I love the continuity features that Apple is implementing , but my windows desktop and laptop run so well, despite being old… I just can’t justify it.
That's commenter XRM7's lamentable position. "I want the new thing, because it's great, but the thing I have is so good I can't justify it." This is a well-encapsulated description of the biggest "problem" with the consumer technology industry right now. It's a problem that sways stock prices, colors customer perception of a brand's ingenuity, and, most likely, has a huge impact on the current and future course of consumer technology companies like Apple, Google, and Samsung.
The problem is everything is great.
I know exactly what XRM7 is feeling. As a gadget-obsessed nerd, I want the new thing always. As a person with a finite number of dollars and a job to do, I can't always justify the new thing. The new thing might be great, but if it's not revolutionary, if it's not so amazing that my current thing is trash in comparison, if there's no appreciable "upgrade" I can convince myself of, I won't buy the new thing. Usually.
In the abstract, "good enough" sounds wonderful. And for a consumer, it is. But for a tech company, it could be the kiss of death.
Windows 7 was good enough. iPods were good enough.
If you're in an evolutionary dead end, and there are no more obvious, meaningful improvements to make, you have two things: an amazing product, and an end of an era. The tech company saddled with such a success has to make something substantially different to become relevant again. Apple superseded the iPod on its own, with the iPhone, making the iPod redundant. Microsoft tried to play it "safe" with Windows 8, by introducing a new interface paradigm for existing form factors, and the experiment backfired. Windows 10 is a retreat back to the ur-safety, and stagnation, of Windows 7.
You have two things: an amazing product, and an end of an era.
I think smartphones and tablets are reaching a similar point. It's not that they'll stop improving, just that the improvements will have diminishing returns. The sort of improvements that aren't must haves anymore, just nice-to-haves.
Apple made this blindingly obvious with its recent iPad mini update: it's last year's iPad mini with the simple addition of Touch ID. As many in the tech press have made clear, you'd have to be crazy to buy the new iPad mini; the “old” model has been discounted by $100 and it continues to be amazing.
In my normal, innovation-obsessed nerd mode, I'd lament this. But today I want to celebrate it. Not many products reach the level of refinement and exactly-right-ness of Windows 7 and late-gen iPods. But iPads are getting there. iPhones might even be past it. I don't think we're far from the sort of smartphone that could last you almost as long as a Windows 7 computer, or a late-gen iPod. Because what must-have features could possibly be in the pipeline?
If recent releases are any indication, Apple and Google don't have an answer. Apple upped the size of its flagship phone, and so has Google. This isn't iteration or innovation, it's variation. Apple couldn't make a much better phone than the 5S, so they made a bigger one instead. Google's Nexus 6, with its silly 6-inch display, seems almost more desperate, because it's objectively too large a thing — not even Samsung's Galaxy Note 4, which includes a pen, is that big.
And again, there's actually a really positive way to look at this: last-gen smartphones were so good, the only way the companies that made those phones could compete with their own products was to make something flashy and (absurdly) big.
If recent releases are any indication, Apple and Google don't have an answer.
I'll call this the "Goldilocks Problem," so it sounds catchy. The current thing is "just right," so to get people to buy the next thing, it has to error toward one of the extremes. Bigger, smaller, hotter, colder. "Just right" isn't a growth industry, so it has to be eclipsed by something new that isn't necessarily better.
I do love innovation. I'm glad to have multi-billion dollar behemoths in a desperate, frantic search for the next improvement they can make to their product, something that can convince me to upgrade again. That's how we got here.
That said, I'm also grateful to live in an era where my biggest "disappointment" with those companies is that the phone in my pocket, laptop in my bag, and tablet on the coffee table, are already near-perfect incarnations of their form. I wouldn't mind a Retina display on my minimalist MacBook Air, or some extra battery life on my perfectly-sized iPhone 5, but overall I'm happy.
I believe the next big growth in technology will come from new kinds of devices, not improvements on this existing trio. Smartwatches? Maybe. VR? I sure hope so. Augmented reality in my eyeball? Oh please yes.
A thinner iPad isn't the answer anymore. That's a huge challenge for this industry. But, also, and apparently I must continue to remind myself of this because oh dear do I want one of those iPad Air 2s... it's a huge accomplishment.