By BoLOBOOLNE payday loans

MP3 Phones? Gadget convergence vs. single-purpose devices

Are we moving towards a world where all our pocket-dwellers merge into one device?  We’ve finally seen the PDA merge with the cell phone, I think for good.  They all have cameras now, but the cameras are mostly horrible and never better then mediocre.  The question of the season is "What about mp3 players?"  Surely they should merge into the phone too, right?  Because nobody wants to carry a phone and a separate mp3 player, right?  Actually, I do.

When thinking about gadget convergence, physics imposes some intrinsic limits.  For example, optics on a camera — right now you need a certain amount of glass to make a decent camera, and this probably won’t change for 5-10 years.  (MEMS mirror arrays will probably solve this problem at some point, but it’s gonna take a while before this is affordable.)  MP3 players are limited by storage or some tradeoff between storare, bandwidth and battery-life.  (Wireless data costs battery.)  But as Apple continues to demonstrate with their disappearing shuffle devices, there’s no intrinsic physical limitation to the size of an MP3 player except for the UI and the headphone jack, and Apple has shown pretty well you don’t need many controls for a simple music player.

But for a great music player it’s all about the controls.  Some say we’re converging on a world where all controls are done through touch-screens and soft-keys.  You certainly can build some fabulous UIs that way.  But until touch screens have tactile feedback, this is not the end of the story.  I operate many of my devices in very sophisticated ways without looking at them.  (Anybody here text while driving?  Be honest.)  Touchscreens can’t give you tactile feedback today.  Sometimes we get fabulous experiences with specialized controls like half-press buttons on cameras or jog wheels with quantized stops.  It’s hard to substitute for holding an ergonomically designed device and knowing how to operate it.  Different devices require different controls, and right now the technology doesn’t exist to genericize that.

Beyond that, when you pick up a generic gizmo, before you can do anything else you need to tell it what personality you want it to exhibit.  "Be a phone now."  When you pick up your dedicated camera, you never need to tell it to stop being an ipod before it will take pictures.  And while some cameras still take a while to boot up, most don’t these days, and they essentially never hang like my crappy "smart" phone does all the time.  These problems of multiple personalities and instability are also major barriers to gadget convergence.  The optimist in me says "these are just software / UI problems and are solvable."  But I don’t think we’ll solve the UI problem until our devices are much better in tune with our emotions, which is pretty far off.  Also, I don’t think we’ll solve the stability problem until we make a fundamental shift in how we write embedded code — something so fundamental I have trouble imagining it.

The single multi-purpose do-it-all gizmo will always have its place.  It’s convenient to be able to carry a single object around that serves many functions, even if it only does a half-assed job at each of these functions.  But until there are several major technological changes, I believe dedicated single-purpose devices will remain the best way for people to satisfy their high-tech gizmo needs.

  1. […] few months ago I wrote about why single-purpose devices will always have better UI’s than general purpose devices.  Here, always really means for about the the next 5 years.  I’ll explain why in a […]