The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

Not even 6 months have passed since the eeePC has been available for sale and you might say that its too soon to call it “the iPod of” anything. But I beg to disagree. As every other eeePC owner knows, once you share your “happiness” experience with another, they’re highly likely to run right out and buy one for themselves.

How many other products out there in the market can boast of that rate of instant word of mouth success?

Also as every eeePC owner knows, people will ooh and aah over it once you pull it out of your bag, asking you what on earth is it, how much was it and where can they buy one too. Even the security guard at Cape Town airport laughed when I sent it through the X Ray machines as a laptop, telling me it was just a larger mobile. As in cellphone. Interestingly enough, ASUS themselves insist its not a notebook.

So why is it new “the iPod”?

Discussions online seem to focus on two aspects of the eeePC when analysing its runaway success – the form factor and the price. Imho, it was only when reading this article on the Foleo and its early demise that it struck me that what makes the eeePC so special is its positioning. Lets step back a moment and look at what’s being said before getting into details about the eeePC’s positioning and how that’s going to drive its success.

Sony’s recent comments on the eeePC’s perceived threat are revealing – they see it as the beginning of a downward spiral in prices if ASUS takes off with the mainstream audience and not just geeks, Linux lovers and early adopters as it has already done so. Developed world articles have also begun referring to it as a children’s computer. Its not just that of course but it helps keeps the fears of other PC makers at bay – HP plans to launch an “eeePC killer“, while Acer is readying one for launch, etc etc etc.

Imho, this is where the big manufacturers are getting it all wrong, or who knows, the analysts and reporters covering this recent brouhaha. Here’s a snippet that shed light on this for me,

But that kind of pricing also could represent a good opportunity for the HPs and Acers of the world. This type of subnotebook is aimed at a very narrow group of users, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Stephen Baker, vice president of industry analysis for The NPD Group.

The pricing shows “it’s not focused on being people’s primary computer,” he said. “Like the MacBook Air, like the Eee, like the Foleo was going to be. We tend to think of them in the context of other notebooks or portable devices, but they’re really not designed to be a primary portable device. It’s designed to be a niche product that focuses on a very specific usage model.”

Wrong! Here is where positioning comes into play. The eeePC was never meant to be a Foleo or a MacBook Air, it wasn’t even meant for the audience its taken by storm. The United States just happened to be the first place where ASUS launched it, not that its an emerging market of any sort, but that’s just a strategic move by them to see how many ripples can this pebble create in a stagnant industry.

The eeePC was positioned for lower income segments in developing nations, the “next billion” customers in emerging markets and so was designed for their needs. This it does very very well. It meets the design specifications required for this audience and it just so happens, because it was designed so well and so clearly positioned, it has also caught the eye of anyone and everyone who appreciates just what they’ve managed to do so effectively. How?

Design –  5 stars

The eeePC was designed to be an affordable, durable, rugged, lightweight mobile information device that would appeal to first time users of personal computers in emerging markets. It not only meets the specifications laid out in its design brief very effectively but also catches the attention of bystanders and onlookers. Its cute and cool and fun to carry and use. It survived the “torture test“. It meets the design expectations of customers at the bottom of the pyramid. And its cheaper than most smartphones or high end mobiles.

Relevance and Access – 5 stars

This product is aimed at first time users – “the next billion customers” – the majority of whom may only have been introduced to any kind of high tech computing device via their experience with their mobile phone. We can safely assume this, there are umpteen billion mobile phones being used in the world right now, 60% of them in developing nations. From this context, the user interface that ASUS presents as “easy to use” feels familiar to them, if only that the majority of cellphones now use some kind of icon based navigation and demonstrate a similar look and feel. Compare that to the intimidation of facing a totally unfamiliar desktop environment. Even the charger that comes with the eeePC resembles that of a mobile phone.

Access has also been designed to take into the account the infrastructural conditions in emerging markets – its not simply dependent on wifi or ethernet or some such thing that may not be available at all in parts of Africa say, the wizard lets you connect via a 3G modem or whathave you – after some initial delay in setting it up, my eeePC connected to the great online in the sky from anywhere in rural South Africa as long as there was a cellphone signal.

The ecosystem – 5 stars

The eeePC takes full advantage of what’s available out there in the ‘free‘ world in order to supply the basics what one really needs today from one’s personal computing device. Look at the photograph above – write someone a letter, chat with them via text messaging, call them on the phone, listen to the radio, get the time, use an enclyopaedia or dictionary – its all out there for free, all you need is a SIM card with some money on it for airtime, which I as discovered, lasted longer as “data” than it did for “voice”. The same goes for a whole host of other basic needs from basic word processing to simple office functions as well media management of music, games and photos. Again, I could go on and on, but the point here isn’t to enumerate what the eeePC can do so much as how it manages to do it.

These factors are what made the iPod what it is today, it wasn’t the first MP3 player, but hit the right buttons with its combination of product design, usability, the iTunes ecosystem et al to become the “wonder” that it did, influencing change that was far reaching and putting Apple back on the global map. The eeePC is doing the same for ASUS. After all, it wasn’t the first of its kind, the OLPC was, but it was certainly the first one available easily and cheaply to anyone who wanted it.  Its a good thing they didn’t listen to the analysts.

There’s a post in here somewhere about market forces doing better, faster and cheaper than any non profit if there’s a fortune to be made, but that’s for another day.

Positioning and strategy

This is why the Foleo was panned – the product was not dissimilar to the eeePC but aimed at too narrow a niche amongst a jaded audience saturated with broadband and computing choices. Its position and relevance wasn’t clearly defined. Its intended audience didn’t “need” it.  And the MacBook Air which is reliant solely on wifi and priced ridiculously gets the reviews it does.

But ASUS, on the other hand, clearly framed the design challenge – meeting an unmet need, that of affordable computing for emerging markets, not a niche market by any count – so the design team was able to come with a better solution at the right price point effectively. And human beings aren’t all that different so the eeePC managed to hit a few buttons everywhere else as well. This clarity of the design strategy is what allowed it to get all the details right, it wasn’t simply aiming at “cheap and small”. Those are features that support the goal, not the goal itself.

Its a brilliant piece of marketing strategy to begin launching a product aimed at the newbie in what is probably the most sophisticated computer market in the world. Why? Because what is the one thing geeks and hackers and lovers of gadgets, those early adopters, will do once they get their hands on one of these babies? Blog about them, talk about them, create forums and boards for them, write patches and apps for it etc etc etc. By the time the eeePC gets out to the people for whom its really meant for, all the bugs and kinks would have been worked out for the most part, help and information will be available online.  One hopes,that it will soon begin to be available where its needed the most – at the bottom of the pyramid.

As James U of Unlimited Potential says in his blog,

But I also know the reality of the physics of the IT industry and the difficulty in trying to go from zero to millions of deployed, functioning, supported machines in a matter of months. About the nature of how this industry works, where one group may come up with an idea and then other organizations or individuals build on the idea and come in from seemingly nowhere (hello ASUS!) with a different type of solution to fill a vacuum created by the original vision.[…]

But that’s all OK, because the OLPC vision isn’t going to go away. There will be a permanent role for low cost, flash-based PCs in national education and technology policies. The XO will survive and evolve, and I bet every laptop vendor on the planet including Dell and HP will have a competing machine within 24 months. A new ecosystem of collaborative, social network-inspired and Internet-enabled education software will emerge. Cell phones will play a bigger role in this space than even Nicholas is publicly acknowledging. And kids and teachers will author a lot of the content.

Dangerous dreamers who assume they will change the world in two years but actually do so in ten, in a manner they never initially anticipated.

And that’s going to be the real power of the eeePC’s sustainable success – its already prepared for the next billion customers that it aims to reach, that’s the power of its positioning and the value of its design, and its going leave the HP’s, Sony’s, Acer’s et al behind if they imagine that its success is only due to form factor and price as they develop their competing machines.

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