Thursday, April 08, 2010

Convergence is great when you spread it out right

Consider this "Technology Post 3: Return of Concupiscence"

Ever since high school I've been fascinated by the idea of converged devices. It always seemed to make more sense to me that a single device should take the place of three, four, or five other objects.

As early as 2004, long before the iPhone, I was already achieving a reasonable facsimile of an ultimate "do-all" device with an HP iPaq Pocket PC. I felt no shame for carrying around a gadget that functioned alternately as a walkman, breviary, newspaper, book reader, Web browser, and game device all in one.

But realistically, it didn't do any of those things well.

Technology has gotten better in the last six years, but I don't see that progress in terms of new technologies so much as the new affordability of existing technologies. Five years ago, the Fujitsu p1000 series MSRP'd for $1200, and now, netbooks run circles around it for a quarter of the cost.

The market is still, surprisingly, on a quixotic mission to give birth to an "ultimate converged device". It continually rediscovers that, where every human need is squeezed into a gadget of one design, the inadequacies of that design give birth immediately to another class of devices whose claim is to trump the first in usability.

We wind up with a handful of "classes" of devices that all serve a handful of tasks chosen from the infinite palette of human activity.

There are smartphones, MIDs ("mobile internet device", i.e. the iPod Touch), gaming handhelds, PMPs ("personal media player"), netbooks, tablets, smartbooks, and of course the venerable laptops (of all classes) and desktops (of all classes). A number of old classes have gone extinct. Yesterday's PDAs and UMPCs have today been absorbed into the nebulous category of MID. Arguably, gaming handhelds and PMPs are all also MIDs. Whatever.

Ultimately, you can get something that fits in your pocket, or something that fits in a purse (or a "murse" *snerk*), or something that you need to set on a table, or something that won't leave your home. Between those possibilities, you might want to send and receive calls and text, use the Internet, "consume media" (I hate that phrase), get directions, view and create documents and media, and so on.

All of the available gadgets offer to provide that functionality, but one thing continues to divide them: contracts.

So far as I am concerned, one has only successfully met their needs when one has minimized the number of contracts to which one is bound.

I considered this when my brother Alex and I discussed the GPS feature on his phone. It is incredibly useful. But it isn't available without a data plan on a major cellular carrier.

So who, in the end, wins the value game? Someone whose phone accomplishes the tasks of dozens of gadgets, but who pays $70-$80 a month for the privilege? (Alex gets some discounts, thank goodness). I have arrived at the conclusion that value trumps convergence where convergence involves slavery to contracts.

A nice computer with Skype + a pay-as-you-go phone + a dedicated, contract-free GPS would seem to do the trick.