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Amazon's new Dash Button is the future of computing

Amazon

Amazon has a new product that seems so simple, it's hard to believe it's a product at all:

It's called the Amazon Dash Button. It's a small plastic device with a button and a light. When you press the button, it sends a message to Amazon to order a refill of some product, like a new bottle of Tide laundry detergent or a new order of Gillette razor blades. And that's all it does.

Dash Buttons have adhesive backs, and the idea is you'd stick them near the place where you store each product. So you'd put the Tide button on your washing machine, the Cascade soap button on your dishwasher, the Folgers coffee button on your coffee machine, and the Gillette razor button inside your medicine cabinet. That way, as soon as you notice you're running low, you can push the button to order more, saving you the minute or two it would take to browse Amazon's website to find that same product.

Cheap, specialized gadgets are the future

I don't know if the Dash Button is going to be a big hit. But regardless, it's a good example of how the plummeting cost of computer chips can change how people interact with computers.

Amazon's website doesn't have a lot of technical details, but the Dash Button appears to be a tiny, battery-operated computer with a built-in wifi chip, capable of connecting to the internet, just like your laptop, iPad, and Kindle can.

Two decades ago it would have been crazy to build a product like this. A PC capable of connecting to the internet cost $1,000 to $2,000. Because most families could only afford to own one or two PCs, they were designed to be all-purpose machines with a wide variety of applications.

By the end of the last decade, costs had fallen to the point where you could build an internet-connected computer for $100 to $200. Now, a typical family could afford to buy 10 or 20 of these devices instead of just one or two. So we started to see more single-purpose computing devices: Kindles for reading, iPod Touches for listening to music, wifi baby monitors for keeping track of sleeping infants, and so forth.

Yet these devices were still expensive enough that it only made sense to buy one if it provided a lot of value. People aren't going to spend $200 on a device they only use a few times a year.

But prices have continued to fall. We're now getting close to the point where you can build an internet-connected computer for $10 or $20. Suddenly, applications that seemed frivolous at $1,000 or $100 look sensible. It would be silly to spend $100 or $1,000 for a light bulb that you can turn off with your smartphone, but if it only costs $10, it might be worth it.

And this is also cheap enough to open up a lot of new business-model options. You might not be willing to pay $10 or 20 for a button that automatically orders Tide detergent, but I bet Tide would be happy to buy it for you!

And there's every reason to expect these costs to keep falling. If current trends continue, internet-connected computers will only cost $1 or $2 by the 2030s. At that price, no application will be too frivolous. Expect the average family to have dozens, and probably hundreds, of simple connected devices.

And in this sense, the Dash Button is the future of computing. People will still have PCs and smartphones, of course. But the vast majority of the computing devices they own will be single-purpose devices that cost just a few dollars.