The Impending Failure of the TechCrunch CrunchPad

CrunchPadHave you heard of the CrunchPad? It's the brainchild of Michael Arrington of TechCrunch fame and despite having created what looks to be a very attractive device that would look great on my couch the device is going to be an absolute failure.

Let me be clear, I'm not rooting for this failure. The folks at Fusion Garage have clearly put a lot of energy into the device but the stars are just not aligned. Predicting the failure of the CrunchPad was not as easy as my perdiction of the Palm Foleo failure mind you. There isn't just one or two large issues that stick out like the Foleo but rather it's a cascade of multiple events and minor mistakes that contribute to the CrunchPads coming failure.

This cascading failure effect is best studied in the airline industry but the same effect applies to other complex system and the creation of a new computing tablet is no different. Let's review the design and product decisions and market observations of the CrunchPad to see the cascade effect in action and perhaps we might find a way to save the CrunchPad.

CrunchPad design

The CrunchPad was originally billed as a low cost, drop dead simple to use device for one purpose - surfing the web. That's a really good starting point  but how committed are they to this goal? As we read more about the original ideas behind the CrunchPad and the posts that would come later you start to realize not nearly enough. Almost as soon as simplicity was the stated goal does Michael start adding things. I just need it to run Firefox, OK and then maybe Skype would be nice too, oh and put it on Linux, add a camera, some speakers, WiFi, a USB port...blah blah blah... OK stop. Yes these are simple things, but they add up. How did the original simplicity design goal go out the window and quickly devolve into a technology discussion? This is great for geeks, but pointless when creating a new gadget. At the end of the day I don't care what OS it's running, I don't care what browser, I don't care about ports or CPU or USB or anything else if it just does what I want it too. Don't believe me? the iPhone didn't run a mainstream OS, browser, have a multitude of plugs or ports and didn't even advertise what CPU they used, it just worked and pretty much everyone now has one.

So how did they do in the end? I dug up all the specifications I could find and here is what I found.

CrunchPad Specs

  • Low cost
    • Originally billed at $200 the price is now rumored to have risen to $400. This is about the price of a Netbook, not good.

  • Intel Atom 1.6Ghz

    • Who cares? Can you tell me if it's snappy and doesn't lag? Watching the YouTube videos suggest that it's not, notice the slow screen refresh and the choppy video performance, not good.

  • 1GB of RAM

    • Who cares? Do my web apps run fine? How many pages can I open at a time?

  • 4GB of flash memory

    • Seems kinda small, with local storage in HTML 5 or Google Gears supporting apps growing this could become a problem. Oh wait I'm talking like a geek again. Who cares? Can I run all my apps? Do I need more?

  • Linux as the OS

    • A big HUGE who cares? I would even argue that this makes the device less attractive. Why? Because most people hear the word Linux and they think "Ugh, complex thing for geeks". Look I've been using Linux since I first complied my own Slackware kernel in 1996 but when I play with Ubuntu or Fedora today I have to ask "WTF Linux people? Haven't you had enough time to make this s%#t work right?". Linux is awesome for my server, not my desktop, and for a no brains tablet, I'm nervous.

  • Boot directly into a custom (WebKit based) browser

    • WebKit, fine choice. I thought you were going to use Firefox? Oh wait I forgot that I DON'T CARE. Does it render web pages right and just work?

  • Small OS Foot Print (100MB)

    • This is a classic example of where a device manufacture takes one of their problems and markets it as a benefit and solution to some consumer problem. What problem exactly are you solving for me that requires a small OS foot print? Right...exactly.

  • WiFi

    • Awesome...because without this it would just be pointless. You might want to add Bluetooth (but only if you remove a bunch of other stuff I list below)

  • Support for 3g/mobile broadband

    • Nifty, hope you are negotiating a subsidy deal with the phone companies or that the electronics for all this are internal because having a 3G card sticking out the side doesn't count.

  • Express Card slot

    • There is no proof of this except from what I can make out in the pictures (which show one). I hope I'm wrong because of my previous point. Adding this violates the simplicity principal.

  • Keyboard and mouse support

    • Why the hell do I want this? This thing isn't a computer, it's a handheld web tablet. Oh right the geeks demanded it, bad motivation.

  • USB Port

    • Pointless. If this is a simple to use web tablet why do I need to be plugging in peripherals? Violates the simplicity directive.

  • Available in 4 colors

    • It should be in any color the customer wants, as long as that color is black. Simplicity! Just because the factory can crank out multiple colors without introducing much cost doesn't mean it's a good idea. Is there a market reason for multiple colors? Just because you can build it doesn't mean you should.

  • Weigh under 3 pounds (2.64?)

    • Sounds about right, I hope most of it is devoted to battery.

  • 12.77 by 7.83 inches, and 0.74 inch thick

    • That's just .02 inches smaller than the thickness of a MacBook Air and that thing has a keyboard and hard drive, so this seems a little large to me. As for the other dimensions that means it's not as big as standard US letter piece of paper, this seems like a mistake to me.

  • 12? capacitative touchscreen

    • I only want to know one thing. Multi-Touch? Yes or no? So far, the videos all say no. Not good.

  • Possible video camera and microphone

    • Sure fine, but do I really need it? Simplicity!

[ad#inline] Now you might be thinking I'm wrong to suggest that they remove things like keyboard and mouse support, USB port or express card slot because all those things would make this thing so much more useful but that's not the point of this device. It's supposed to be a simple to use web tablet that just works. Once you start adding peripheral ports you have to include drivers, which means installing things, which means things can break, which means that tablet isn't so simple anymore and is for geeks. Is this thing meant to be a niche product for geeks?

Unknown Important Details

There are a few important details that have yet to be revealed, but the fact that they haven't been mentioned up front worries me a lot. The following items should be top of mind to anyone thinking about buying a touchpad.

  • Battery life
    • This has to be stellar, I mean really really stellar. Like 8 hours of use stellar

  • Responsiveness of the touch screen

    • The difference between a touch screen that works and a product that makes you want to throw it out the window is so tiny that if this isn't done right people will be throwing these things out the window or more likely, just not buying them

  • Multi-Touch support

    • Yeah, there are patent issues here, but if it's missing people will be asking why

  • Security and automated updating capabilities

    • How secure is this thing? Does it keep itself up to date? Do I have to do anything? This needs to be all automated 100% away from the user.

CrunchPad Target Customer Profile

I don't really know what the target customer is but since it's being designed by technology journalist and geek and has been so far only marketed to geeks through the TechCrunch blog lets assume for the moment that the target customer is the TechCrunch reader. I'm sure they know a lot more about their readers than I do so I won't spend much time on this but off the top of my head I would say this makes the target customer:

  • Technology savvy
  • Disposable Income
  • Want's to stay on the couch. Too lazy to use the computer in the den.

This does not sound like a mass market customer profile to me, it's definitely a profitable niche but will it support the kind of volume necessary to market and sell a consumer electronics product? I don't know these answers, but I'm assuming they are thinking about this one a lot and is likely why the cost has gone up. The big problem here however is most geeks I know when they want to stay on the couch just pull out their SmartPhone which is good enough for them. If they are going to buy something that displaces this, it's going to have a coolness factor all it's own but most importantly, be cheap.

Market Observations

This is the big one, there has been a lot of interesting things going on since the CrunchPad was first announced in July of 2008, and in the case of Apple, even before it was first announced.

  • Google announces ChromeOS
    • This one is HUGE. I originally was thinking that Google and TechCrunch had been working together from the start and that the CrunchPad was going to be the first device to sport the ChromeOS. Then I did my homework and realized this was just too good to be true. If however it was true it would be the greatest PR coup ever launched for both ChromeOS and the CrunchPad. It's not too late to make this a reality either and it's almost too perfect a union to not pass up. The challenge will be for the CrunchPad to fight the built up "technology inertia" they have already created for themselves (blog post on this concept coming soon) and throw away a lot of work already done to pursue ChromeOS.

  • Apple reportedly working on tablet

    • lots of interesting patent applications from apple on this (tablet docking station as well as some sort of netbook dock in Jan 2008) not to mention huge rumors around the development of a Apple tablet computer. Apple understands simplicity in design and if the rumors are true will likely give the CrunchPad a run for it's money. At the same time I actually expect Apple to release a device that is more functional than a simple tablet and not as simple as what a device like the CrunchPad could be. It will also almost certainly be at a higher price point, likely around 800 bucks. This is creates an opportunity for CrunchPad but also means that customers will likely wait to see what apple releases first before they buy something.

  • Lack of CrunchPad market ecosystem

    • It's not enough to just be a web surfing tablet. There needs to be an ecosystem created around this product that is released at the same time. I've got lots of ideas on what this could involve but the point is that no one seems to be thinking about it, not good for the CrunchPad.

  • Lack of experience in the consumer electronics industry

    • I am on the fence about this one. Apple had zero experience in the mobile phone business and they figured it out. Smart people can do anything. At the same time, it's not exactly a downhill race for them here either.

Summary to failure

So lets add up all these small cuts and see if we have enough to kill the patient:

  1. Not low cost
  2. Not holding true to the simplicity principal
  3. Too focused on geeking out and talking about the technology
  4. Too many colors.
  5. No one is talking about critical important factors like battery life and security
  6. Target market might be too small to support it
  7. Google ChromeOS will overshadow any work they do on their platform and browser
  8. Apple rumors of tablet will keep customers from buying and then they might just buy the Apple tablet instead

I think all of these things add up to only one outcome: market failure of the CrunchPad. However not all is lost, I think there are a few changes that CrunchPad could make that would better the odds of success.

Recommendations to CrunchPad

It's going to be costly. The CrunchPad folks are going to have to throw away a lot of work and doing that is going to be very very hard to do. It's a huge risk already and massive changes this late in the project are hard to swallow. However when the alternative is what I think is certain failure, the choice should be an easy. Unfortunately I don't expect the CrunchPad folks to walk away from their work and make such hard decisions. However, Michael if you or any of the CrunchPad team is reading this here is what I recommend you think about.

  1. Abandon your OS and browser platform, embrace Google ChromeOS immediately. The simultaneous release of the CrunchPad and ChromeOS will generate so much buzz it will be an unstoppable marketing force.
  2. Remove everything from the CrunchPad that doesn't need to be there. USB ports, express card slots, etc... Make the device as simple as you possibly can. Be ruthless.
  3. Focus on battery life, ease of use, security and a broader market
  4. Get the cost under $200 dollars otherwise Apple will eat your lunch

So CrunchPad guys, I'm sorry that it's likely not going to work out. I was rooting for you because I'm a geek at heart but when I started thinking about everything I felt I had to be the bearer of bad news. I hope you don't take it personal. Invite me up sometime and maybe we can work together to change the future because someone is going to get the web tablet right and sell a million of them, but right now I don't think it's going to be you.