Community-powered development and brainstorming is an interesting challenge. On one hand, you get exposure to more ideas and concepts than you can possibly get from an individual or small team. On the other hand, the signal-to-noise ratio rapidly gets out of control, and depending on the level of empowerment, you get clumsy, hard-to-use, yet feature-rich products. When I read about the WePC concept from Intel and ASUS, I started pondering what wisdom the crowds have to offer (thanks to BrianB for the image suggestion).
I’ll admit, I’m skeptical here. First and foremost, the challenges of building any computer come back to the single element which seems to make/break good PCs today: the drivers. No matter what excellent ideas come back from the crowd, someone has to come along and make outstanding drivers, otherwise they’ll have the kinds of problems with XP or Vista that I used to have with my Vaio (yeah, I went back to the Vaio, beaten horse it may be).
Next, we have a fundamental cost/performance issue. I don’t think you need to be Jonathan Ives to say “people want lightweight, thin, exceptionally well-styled computers that are feature-rich and inexpensive”. Draw a triangle with size/weight, features, and cost onto the axes (clumsily drawn to the right using this tool – which desperately needs help). You can pick any TWO, but not all three. But what do people want? All three.
This brings us back down to unfortunate reality, where the “average” computers are cost-driven with basic features and basic size/weights. Machines like eeePC or the Voodoo Envy or the MacBook Air are all targeting extreme edges of the combinations, but none of these laptops could’ve come from the committee – they are all horses.
That said, if the WePC effort helps give Asus a good handle on what their users may purchase, that’s great. If it lets them further innovate in their product design, also great. Companies like Dell and Bug Labs are both using their communities to help steer product direction, but not definitively decide it. I think it’s a careful balancing act.
My hunch is the WePC’s will end up extremely similar to the existing product lines made by most notebook manufacturers today. I hope I’m proven wrong, and we see some amazing innovations. I’ll give Asus a lot of credit with their new products over the past few years, now let’s see where the crowd takes it.