I have lots of electronic gadgets around the house. Laptops ($600-800), TVs ($200-300), cell phones ($100-200 plus contract), video game consoles ($200-300), handheld game consoles ($150-200), tablets ($300-400), etc. With one or two exceptions, they are all quite impressive, heavily used, and worth the investment.
Mind you, that is no accident. In most cases, we spent a considerable amount of time analyzing whether we actually needed a new device, comparing options available on the market, and evaluating pros and cons before the purchase. It's not that we can't afford these items. But they represent a significant cost — especially since they often require additional accessories to be useful. (More on that later.)
But not all my gadgets face the same scrutiny. A couple of years ago I bought a new digital camera. I didn't need one; I already had a perfectly good, if slightly older model. But the new one was smaller and lighter with three times the resolution. More importantly, it was on sale for $80. So I bought it.
The fact is there is a tipping point below which an item becomes discretionary — throw away — a toy rather than a necessity— something you can buy on a whim rather than after careful consideration. I find from experience that for me that point is around $100. And, based on recent events, I suspect the same is true for many other Americans.
There has been a recent surge in sub-$100 electronic gadgets. All but the best smart phones advertise themselves that way (although that price point really is a sham since they require a contract that can exceed $100 a month). The glut of Chinese android tablets sold through Amazon and Walmart are aiming at this market as well.
But what really caught my eye were two new, innovative gadgets coming in at this lower price point. First, is what Tadhg Kelly refers to as the video game "microconsoles". First among these is the Ouya, priced at $99 and targeted for general release in June.
The Ouya is not a copycat device; it is an entirely new concept entering a market dominated by entrenched, high-cost devices. Rather than using custom high-end components, Ouya uses largely commodity hardware and an open source operating system (Android) to build a low-cost, open platform for gaming. Even business-wise, it is different, since the focus is providing a competent platform quickly (and frequently) rather than expensive hardware plus expensive games on a 5+ year cycle.
Will it succeed? There's no way to tell. I think there's a good chance it will. And I hope it will, since I think there is a desperate need for some middle ground between high-end dedicated consoles and, quite frankly, sub-par cell phone/touch pad experiences. But there are plenty of unknowns involved. Not the least of which is: what games will be available on the Ouya?
But at $99 for the console and one controller, It is a very appealing item, which I am likely to buy just to see how it works. Its success in the market would be an added bonus. But not even that is necessary. Because of the open platform, I could still use it as a sandbox for building my own games if I want.
The second gadget is Dell's Project Ophelia, and its competitors such as the S21H and MK809 II. These items all represent a new type of device, what might be called a PC-on-a-stick. They are not much bigger than a USB thumbdrive and serve as a very portable laptop replacement.
The Chinese entries, such as S21H and MK809 II, actually act as a portable computer; just plug them into a monitor or TV and connect a keyboard and mouse and... voila! Instant computer!
Now, there are obvious drawbacks. The operating system, Android again, is designed for touch devices. So it is unclear how usable most apps will be with a mouse. But again, these devices come in around $60-80, making them an attractive "experiment".
This is particularly true of Project Ophelia, which takes a slightly different approach. Rather than providing a complete computer on a stick, Project Ophelia provides remote access to more powerful computers running familiar OSes.
Now, there are even more questions about these laptops-on-a-stick than the microconsoles. Details such as how much storage, boot time, power supply, and the most obvious: how large is the audience that has monitors, keyboards, and mice at all the appropriate locations? Be that as it may, it is still an intriguing option that solves problems tablets and smart phones do not today — e.g. "serious" computing that requires more accuracy than touch screens and more text editing than IMs and short emails.
So, will I get one? Not sure. I'm tempted. If I had more faith that the wifi was reliable on the Chinese models, I would. Even at $50 or so, these devices must work properly to be worthwhile, even as a toy. And, although I have more faith in Project Ophelia, it looks like it is largely an entry device for a cloud service, which — like smartphones — where the subscription fees would quickly exceed the initial outlay in cost.
So Ouya is clearly in my sights as an impulse buy. Even if Project Ophelia isn't, just its presence in the market — and the interest it inspires — indicates there is both an opportunity and a problem to be solved in the computing ecosystem somewhere between the ease of smartphones and tablets on one side and the heavy-duty computing of laptops and desktops on the other.