Resetting the Defaults – The Value of Understanding When Large Change Happens

In virtually every sphere of life one can think of, there are defaults.  The basic expectations against which all other things in a category are compared.  Understanding how these work can be an important way to identify future opportunity.

Defaults seem permanent, but they’re not.  Though they may last for a long time, something inevitably enters the picture and resets that default in its own image.

Mobile phones offer a great illustration of the numerous default stages we’ve gone through.  If you hold a phone long enough, it changes your perception of every other phone as it becomes your basis for comparison (your default).

History of Cell Phones From Designboom
History of Cell Phones From Designboom (the rest of the history is available if you click on the image).

When they first came to the commercial market, they were bulky box/bag units with a phone handset attached.  This was the default until the “Gordon Gekko/Zack Morris” brick.  It remained the default until the smaller Nokia-style brick phones.  Then the StarTac clamshell vaporized the default with its Star Trek-esque elegance.

Default settings don’t change only one way, however, and after years of Motorola-led shrinking of mobile phones – the default was reset in the other direction with the advent of the Blackberry.  Suddenly bigger was okay, and in fact better because the mobile phone needed a high-resolution touch screen for all of the functionality phones could now provide.

Bigger continued to be better with the release of the iPhone and Android-powered units.  It continues to this day.  Personally I distinctly remember rejecting the Storm 2 because my default had become the mini Motorola qwerty keyboard and I couldn’t see the value in an unresponsive touch screen for typing.  Now when I pick up my old Curve, it feels too small to be of any use compared to my Razr Maxx (which is dwarfed by my wife’s Samsung Galaxy II).

Sometimes defaults are reset so substantially that they blur and join other categories.  Think of mobile phones and tablets for example.  Right now we’re watching two separate processes of evolution toward a standard: phones are growing larger to provide the capabilities of tablets and tablets are shrinking to provide the portability of mobile phones (like the iPad mini).

What we can learn from all of this is that the rules that we tend to think govern human behavior or what consumers will or won’t do are far more malleable than most assume.  It’s just a matter of timing and opportunity.  If you can understand the current defaults – you can see opportunity on the horizon when they inevitably change.

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