Thursday, February 17, 2011

Graf Spee

By Norman Hairston
Normh@alum.mit.edu


There is an analogy that I often use to describe computing devices, they are like warships. There are Notebooks, which are something of the battleships of the current era, tablets which equate to cruisers (pretty much literally) and cell phones which are the destroyers in this rubric. Generally what defines a warship, at least in the WWI-WWII era, was how thick the armor was and how big the guns were. A battleship generally had 14-16” of armor and had 14-16” diameter guns. This was a “balanced design. Cruisers had less armor and smaller guns, generally 8” armor and up to 8” guns. Destroyers had 5” guns but only an inch of armor; they were the light and fast members of the fleet. At least until WWII they were also something of a disposable item, being used to screen the larger ships. The US built close to 800 destroyers during WWII but only 10 battleships. In my analogy, the armor, how big and heavy the ship was could be thought of as computing power while the size of the guns, the business end of the ship, can be likened to screen sizes.

Although there were general rules about the proportions of ships, guns to armor, there was also some experimentation with unbalanced designs. There were battle cruisers, gunned like a battleship, armored like a cruiser. There was the opposite, the Scharnorst class, armored like a battleship gunned like a cruiser. There were battle-carriers, battleships that had small fleets of plains, and there were the German pocket battleships, gunned like a battleship armored like a destroyer. Some of the ships with these unbalanced designs became quite famous… usually because of their sinking at the hands of more standard fare.

I am reminded of this analogy by current events in the cell phone market. As cell phones become more and more powerful, the limitations of their screens become more constricting. As a consequence, the next generation of smart phones, the Iphone 5, look to have a minimum of a 4” screen, with some being even larger. The size of the screens starts to blur the difference between what is a cell phone and what is a tablet PC with a cellular connection.

Personally, I carry my cell phone around in my pocket and the current generation of smartphones is already to large for me. The breakage issue that some smartphones have had calls to question, what is the likely breakage rate for phones with 4 and 5” screens? Even if the breakage rate were zero, again, these sizes are a bit much to carry in your pocket.

This is not to say that very large phones do not have a bright future. The marketing industry is salivating over the degree that they can push-market goods and services to smartphone owners that happen to be walking by. No doubt the revenues provided by the marketers and by those selling apps or mobile services will guarantee continued growth of the smartphone market, if not the phones themselves, for some time.

This points out the flaw in my analogy. I have likened smart phones to the pocket battleships. Of course the pocket battleships were a design failure in that they did not accomplish their goals. They didn’t last very long when confronted by ships of more conventional designs. They were rapidly obsoleted by submarines that could accomplish the same tasks with much smaller platform. However, unlike a warship that is expected to last for 20-50 years, smartphones are supposed to go down in flames after only a few years. They are built and sold with the concept that they will be obsolete in 3 years. Industries can do that when they have a continuing stream of innovation and provide consumers with compelling reasons to toss out the old and embrace the new.

While smart phones are already very big and getting bigger, I have no doubt that small will be in and the next generation of smart phones with the 5” screens will be referred to as dinosaurs. He newer larger phones will look great sliding down the ramp; but I expect that there is a right size for a mobile phone, a balanced design, and that these balanced designs will ultimately win out.