Down the Rabbit Hole
The anti-app device that should have been an app
In my predictions post, I surmised that A.I. would have a big year in 2024. I know, groundbreaking stuff; thanks for the standing ovation. You can sit down now.
One area that I expected to blow up was A.I. devices or, more specifically, pointless A.I. devices. I wrote,
"We've already had a neckless and a pin. A.I. stuffing is set to continue and will continue so long as A.I. remains the buzzword of the moment and gets investors wet in the pants. Much like the rush to make devices' smart' or the buzz of IoT devices, the next wave is incoming, with A.I. set to be the new tech frontier for 2024."
Well, no sooner than those words had been sent out into the ether did I stumble upon the launch of Rabbit's r1 device.
The release video was exactly as you'd expect a modern showcase to be — it was like Apple, just not. You know the drill: founder wearing black, minimal backdrop, fancy visuals of the product with moody black shadows, and, of course, lots of hand gestures. In one departure from the Apple playbook, they did include a cringeworthy Rickroll.
I'll be fair and start with some positives — it's nice to see hardware devices making a bit of a comeback (less cool that they all have to be A.I.-stuffed). As a Product Designer by degree, devices like this are reminiscent of the things we would dream up in lectures. It makes me feel a little nostalgic, which is cool. I like the scroll button. I like that it's tactile. It's somewhat cheap. It doesn't need a subscription. I also like the color. Okay, I'm getting a little desperate now. They also sold out the first four batches, so kudos to them. I hope they can now fulfill those orders, and we don't end up with some Kickstarter rug pull scenario. With what we've seen over the last few years with crypto and NFTs, it's not out of the question.
Unfortunately, that's where my enthusiasm ends.
The r1 is pitched as an alternative to the app ecosystem. As Rabbit's founder and CEO, Jesse Lyu, says in the keynote, "the smartphone has become the best device to kill time, not save time." He blames this on the overwhelming number of apps, which cause us to spend time searching and swapping around for the right tool to serve us in a particular moment, just to end up getting nothing done at all.
I don't agree with this. The app ecosystem is fine; yes, we spend too much time on some of them, and some have been fine-tuned to suck up every ounce of attention from us, but a huge part of that problem is our own (lack of) self-discipline.
I hate the line, but this anti-app device may as well have been an app. It serves to do the same things apps do, just now with a crappy LLM feeding you the answers. It's ChatGPT but with a shiny orange wrapper around it.
Those who are quick to shout that these devices will replace the phones in our pockets are kidding themselves on. This device won't be a phone killer — Rabbit even call it a mobile device. In fairness to the team behind r1, they don't seem to believe this either. Jesse Lyu said this on X,
"We are not saying you should dump your phone, nor do we delusional about it's better to carry 2 devices than one, regardless of where and how you carry them.
But r1 is making a small dent in the industry by convincing our audience that, hey look, it can do x amount of things that your phone can do, but MUCH faster and intuitive. Then with teach mode (this is underrated and will likely continues to be), user start to teach rabbit OS all the things your phone cannot do."
All in all, I just don't get it. Is it just me? It's not positioned as a phone alternative or a companion device that you should carry alongside your phone. So, what is it? Why is talking to a device, waiting for those excruciating seconds — some parts of the demo were at 4x speed, and it was still unbearable — then getting the response (which might be wrong), faster or more efficient than a smartphone? The best answer the keynote gave to this is that the r1 saves you from going through multiple apps to complete "complex' "tasks — the example was booking a holiday. But in other cases, you are still loading apps onto the device, like Spotify, to use them. So, it's just a mobile device, but less useful? That's the exact opposite of what the keynote is trying to sell.
With all new categories, a lot of this is throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. With this device, I'm not sure what that will be. The price point has seen quick adoption — 40,000 pre-orders so far — so there is every chance this is the first device to gain some traction in the public eye, and from there, the floodgates could open for more and more standalone devices. But will any of them answer the critical question: what is the use case? I'm skeptical, at best.
A.I. devices need a win to prove they are more than a hype bubble and that the category has real staying power. Humane is laying off 4% of employees this week, and they haven't even shipped their device yet. The founding CTO — the one who couldn't look less excited about the device when he was demoing it — is also leaving. Layoffs before your device has even shipped are a pretty ominous sign. The AI Pin, which claims to be a smartphone replacement, will cost a hefty $700 (seven hundred) and is likely to be a failure. It is too expensive, too niche, and too lacking in real, applicable use cases. Unfortunately, I wouldn't be surprised to see more layoffs ahead or for the entire company to soon be disbanded.
We're only just entering the A.I. device rabbit hole. How far we get down is yet to be seen.
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