Paul McAleer

No One Cares About Their Clock Radio's CPU

Paul McAleer

Back in the PowerPC era of the Mac, it was really difficult for Apple to compete with Intel’s chips on pure numbers. This led to the promotion of the megahertz myth, videos mentioning gigaflops (particularly the G4 Cube intro video - god, I miss that machine,) and lots of talk about the user experience and the operating system. When OS X was where Apple was headed, they needed to focus on that because they couldn’t, frankly, compete on raw speed nor price back in the day. And those numbers are what drive PC sales to this day (although, arguably, the CPU speed has been supplanted by price as the most important number to an average consumer.)

So Apple did something smart. While they did switch to Intel to compete on that front, they also said, “We’re not going to play that game tomorrow.” Instead, they started building closed consumer electronics: the iPad, the iPod, and the iPhone. What CPU runs the 2nd generation iPod? How much memory does it have? How much memory does the iPhone 3GS have? Honestly, you might know these things only if you’re a geek or a technologist, or both.

The mass market - the consumer market - shouldn’t care about numbers other than storage space, because those other numbers ultimately serve to alleviate buyer’s remorse and sell future products but speak very little to meaningful usefulness of a device. The way PCs are marketed have trained us to “care” about those numbers. Telling a person that a device has a 2.6GHz CPU is meaningless unless they are able to get what they want done. That’s all that matters. Everything else is just means to an end.

Now, in the PC world, this doesn’t fly. It’s a numbers game. But in consumer electronics? Ah, now you’ve got something. The precedent is there: no one, or perhaps 5 people, care what CPU drives their clock radios. With tablets, you’ve taken away the entire abstract of a computer - including the baggage that goes with it! - and replaced it with an appliance which “just works.” And yet, I see promotional blog posts for the PlayBook, Xoom, and cast of thousands of tablets talk about numbers, resolution, and all that crap.

That’s not how tablets have been sold thus far and I truly hope we won’t go down that path. Tablets are not computers, so selling them like computers is foolish. Putting computer operating systems on them is silly. Treating them like computers - wanting them to be computers - fundamentally misses the entire point. They’re something else, and any company which decides to focus on numbers is clearly stuck in the past.