Given that the general impression given of the British retail sector in particular post- christmas was one of doom and gloom, with several major chains facing well-documented problems, closer inspection revealed some interesting upward trends in the midst of the figures. And technology, not for the first time, was adding some of the fuel.
Appreciating that there were many contributory factors, the numbers for high- street electrical giant Currys were surprisingly impressive. In line with similar chains in other countries, Currys has spent money making its stores bigger, consolidating its brands under one (very big) roof. I went in one just before Christmas and, truthfully, couldn’t leave fast enough. The PC World segment of the business seems to exist to try to sell us copies of Windows 8 (which I suspect will continue to cause Microsoft as many problems as it resolves), and listening to a salesperson try and sell anti-virus software to someone buying a tablet computer called for rarely seen levels of restraint. The methodology of old remains the same, it seems, even if the products themselves gradually changed.
Two things have buoyed Currys, however. The first is the demise of another big British chain, Comet, which inevitably brought fresh footfall into the market.
But the other, and less UK-specific factor is the staggering, ongoing success of tablet computers. Tablets are now heavily mainstream, as well as filling in niches in the market that a full computer can’t do. Take the rise in educational and child-targeted tablet computers, for instance. Granted, this is usually a cheap Android-powered model that’s had a few apps clustered together on it. But there’s potential here to push the hardware itself into affordable, interesting places, and the low price that’s been asked for such devices suggests that there’s headroom to do more.
What’s particularly interesting about the tablet market too is that Apple no longer appears to be having things its own way, and that’s been crucial to the relaxing of the sector as a whole. Samsung and its Galaxy line is at the top end of Apple’s rivals, and Google’s Nexus line continues to thrive. Sadly, it looks as if Amazon’s less-friendly-than-it-looks Kindle Fire has been making serious headway, though, which is a worry. As those who have used the Kindle Fire extensively can testify, it’s a tablet that exists to get you closer to Amazon’s products and services above all else. It adds little to nothing to the open source community at all.
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Convincing the mass market to adopt an open source operating system for a desktop PC or laptop was always going to be a proverbial uphill struggle, but there’s a different set of parameters now. While Windows 8 continues to try to win people over, the truth that Microsoft is facing is that, for the first time in a generation, there’s change on a software as well as a hardware level.
Sadly, by allowing the likes of Amazon to seize that, there’s an argument that some opportunities have been lost already. But the taking for granted of a touch-screen interface means that there’s space here for something of note in the retail sector to develop; for devices that work on a genuine framework of open source software, to offer genuine choice.
Remember the days when Dell first introduced its laptop customisation purchase screen that seemed intent on selling you as much as it possibly could? Well, that might just be inverted now. Instead, software becomes the choice. Given that most hardware in the sector is created equal, we’re at a stage where end users can, instead of quibbling over memory and storage space, focus on application and what they actually want a device for.
Currys is unlikely to be interested in that any time soon. But by continuing to fuel the tablet explosion, the retailer may yet have a helping hand in bringing to the fore a more interesting way of computing.
This article was originally published in Linux User & Developer 123. You can get our latest issue, and subscriptions, from our online shop.