Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Technology previews vs. premature release

Earlier today, Nintendo previewed its new Wii U at the E3 conference. The Wii U is a new console with a tablet-like device that serves as a controller and second display device. Like a number of other Nintendo events, today's Wii U announcement was deliberately positioned as a technology preview rather than a formal product announcement. The Wii U won't ship until 2012, and it may be significantly different by the time it ships. However, Nintendo is encouraging developers to start writing games and applications for the Wii U, so that when it ships, there will be a significant third-party library to support it.

I'm not a fan of early announcements, but when it comes to new platforms, technology previews make a lot of sense. They introduce developers, the press and potential customers to new product concepts, and they build interest and support for the formal product release. They buy time for their vendors--Nintendo said "2012", which gives them almost 18 months. They're clearly prototypes, and they give vendors the time they need to gather feedback and make changes before they go to market.

Compare this approach with what Google did with Google TV and its Android 3.0 tablets. Last year's Google TV announcement was clearly premature; the resulting products from Sony and Logitech were too expensive and too hard to use for most consumers. There was no reason for Google and its partners to rush Google TV out for last year's holiday season. Had they positioned the announcement at last year's I/O Conference as a technology preview, with a product release scheduled for some time in 2011, they would have had the opportunity to get developers involved, get much more usability feedback and resolve objections from television and cable networks before they went to market.

Much the same thing happened earlier this year with Android 3.0 and Motorola's Xoom. Google and Motorola were determined to beat Apple's iPad 2 to market, so they rushed out both Honeycomb (Android 3.0) and the Xoom. Third-party developers had almost no time to develop tablet-aware Android apps before the Xoom shipped, and the first version of the Xoom was much too expensive: $799 (U.S.) without a data plan, or $599 with a two-year contract. In addition, Motorola promoted the Xoom's LTE broadband compatibility, but the initial model shipped with 3G CDMA, and Motorola still hasn't released the LTE capability.

Honeycomb was rough around the edges, with almost no tablet-specific apps, and the Xoom was too expensive. It was a replay of the Google TV launch. Even though there are many more Android tablets coming this year, it looks like there won't be a big market for them until 2012 at the earliest.

If Google had given a technology preview of Google TV last year for release in 2011, and if they had previewed Honeycomb with "reference platform" tablets early this year for release in time for the holiday season, it would have given developers time to build a base of compatible apps, and hardware vendors time to build devices that took full advantage of the operating system while meeting customers' price expectations. In hindsight, it wouldn't have hurt Google and Motorola at all to ship after the iPad 2; in fact, they would have shipped better products at lower prices.

The lesson is that if you're working on platforms, not just products and services that are compatible with existing platforms, technology previews are a much better option than prematurely releasing final products.
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