Too Many Gadgets?

ibm_chip1It seems that we have reached a point where the typical consumer thinks there are too many gadgets in his (or her) life and the average person is becoming less interested in buying new ones. A poll conducted earlier this year by Accenture showed that consumer demand for personal electronics is greatly reduced compared to recent years.

The drive to have personal electronics was spurred by the smartphone revolution, which has outperformed sales compared to almost any other product in history. But there have also recently been other personal electronics products like the Fitbit and health wearables that have done very.

But it looks like the shine might be coming off of the personal electronics industry. The Accenture survey showed that fewer people are considering buying every category of personal electronics. For example, the poll showed that only 13% of respondents were considering buying a new smartphone in 2016. That is far below the levels seen in recent years where a significant percentage of smartphone users upgraded their phone every 2 or 3 years.

And the survey also showed weak demand for wearables like Fitbit, for virtual reality, for drones and for the Internet of Things. If this poll is true, then all of these industries are going to underperform compared to expectations. We are certainly seeing this in the real world. Apple stock just stumbled due to falling demand for the iPhone. Samsung and the other smartphone makers went through the same thing last year.

The poll didn’t ask why this was so, but just measured consumer demand. I can think of several reasons why demand is down. First is cost. None of these personal electronics are particularly cheap and it’s unrealistic for the market to expect that all of these electronics will sell as wildly as is predicted by industry insiders. If you listen to the hype each year at places like CES you would expect that everyone in America will soon be buying drones and piles of IoT devices for their homes.

I think another primary reason for the decline is performance. My wife has a sports device to track her running. It works great for what she wants from it and there is no particular reason for her to upgrade it. And every runner she knows has one. Once the market for runners and walkers is saturated there is only so much that can be expected in demand for a device with such a specific function. There is just not much difference between the newer sports wearables and ones sold just a few years ago.

And performance is now a bit issue with smartphones. There is not much difference any more between one generation and another. The new smartphones look the same, feel the same and do about the same things and the old ones. And this is more the fault of the slowing of Moore’s law than anything else.

Since the early 70s chip makers like Intel have released a new chip about every two years that crammed about twice as many transistors into the same chip space. This is the primary reason why each new generation of the iPhone has been a noticeable improvement over the previous model. Each new chip has meant a big leap upward in speed, energy-efficiency and performance of the smartphone.

But in the 10-K filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission at the end of 2015 Intel disclosed that the pace at which it will launch new chips is going to be slower in the future. Intel’s latest mass-production chips for smartphones now have a gap between components of 14 nanometers. Physics is going to limit that ultimate gap to perhaps 4 or 5 nanometers at the smallest due to the size of the molecules of the chip materials. There isn’t very much more room for improvement.

This is not to say that there won’t continue to be improvements in computers – but soon the improvements are not going to come from more compact chips. There are amazing new breakthroughs coming in other areas. IBM has a new chip that works in 3 dimensions that has a lot of promise for supercomputers. There are computers becoming faster by using light instead of electricity. And there is a lot of promise from quantum computing. But all of these improvements, at least for now, are likely to help larger computers and don’t lend themselves to the cheap mass-produced chips that drive personal electronics.

And none of this means that the market for personal electronics is dead. There are still huge numbers of all of these devices being sold. But when you use the performance of Apple over the past decade as the way to measure success in the electronics world it’s likely that nothing is ever going to measure up to that yardstick.

This is a cautionary tale for any carrier that is considering selling home automation, energy management or security. There is a decent living to be made in all of these areas, but don’t get sucked into the hype that every home in America is going to want all of these devices and services within the next few years. Because it appears that is definitely not true.

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