The Myth of Convergence

Thursday, 2004-04-22; 23:02:00

Why cell phones, PDAs, music players, laptops, and desktops will all stay separate

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

In the technology world, we have a lot of different specialized devices. Cell phones are becoming ever-more popular, PDAs are still used by a lot of people, laptops are increasingly becoming commonplace, and music players like the iPod are just taking off. In the midst of all this, we have those people that have one of each: they're on the cutting edge of technology and have to have the latest spiffy device. Or perhaps they're one of those business types that has a PDA or a cell phone for when there's no time to whip out the laptop, a desktop back at the office for those times when a larger screen is needed, and a music player for the times off business.

It's people like these who are prime for a device that integrates all of the different pieces of technology into only a few that perform all of the functions. Wouldn't it be nice to have a phone that has PDA functions, and plays music as well as an iPod? How about a laptop that's as powerful and has as many features as a regular desktop computer?

Technology analysts like to tout what they call "convergence" of all these devices. Soon the PDA market and the cell phone market are going to converge, because people are clamoring for small devices that perform both functions well, they say. Laptops will eventually become almost ubiquitous, and desktops will be relegated to the high end of the computing spectrum for those rare but intensive projects, they claim. In reality, the convergence of these different devices is never going to happen.

The different kinds of technological devices that are popular in our society today exist for a reason. They're specialized devices that perform a particular task, and perform it well. It's the same idea as the technology that exists throughout most kitchens. Usually, there's a refrigerator, an oven, a microwave, a sink, and maybe a coffee maker or a toaster in every kitchen. Do we ever see technology analysts claiming that microwaves and ovens are ripe for a convergence in the next few years? Not that I've ever seen.

Bear with me for a moment, since this is probably more of a boring subject than the more cutting edge computer market. The reason that this statement is never made is because the technologies are aimed at two different markets. On the surface, it might make sense that ovens and microwaves would eventually merge into one device. After all, both ovens and microwaves cook and warm up foods. Microwaves do it faster and are often programmable, whereas ovens usually only have a temperature setting and a timer. In contrast, many people would argue that cooking food in ovens will preserve some of the best qualities of foods (like tenderness, moistness, etc.), and can also handle much larger quantities of food at a time. But can't this technology be improved enough to be able to make a device that carries only the best qualities of both devices, and leaves out the worst? Probably not.

This analogy applies to the computer market just as much as it does to the kitchen market, for lack of a better term. Cell phones are made primarily to contact other people on the phone. PDAs are made primarily to store and retrieve information at the drop of a hat. And music players are designed almost exclusively to play music and display information about the currently playing music.

As such, each device has a certain set of characteristics that makes it optimal for performing its primary function, but usually falls flat when trying to perform other functions. Take the iPod for example: it fails spectacularly as a PDA because there's no way to input information without a computer. Sure, it's handy when you want to briefly look up that one phone number or address you forgot, but most people use their iPod just for playing music. Similarly, a cell phone is made with a traditional 12-button pad, which is what everybody is familiar with when dialing someone on the phone. But when you try to use it as a PDA, it becomes cumbersome, because there's no pen-based input, and if you want to type in information, you often have to press buttons two or three times in a row due to the lack of enough buttons for each letter of the alphabet. While many people get good at inputting information in this fashion, I'm sure no one will contest the fact that a keyboard or even a pen-based input like PDAs have is much easier.

This simply illustrates that a device which integrates a cell phone and a PDA is not going to be an optimal device for most people. To be a worthwhile PDA, you want a large screen and a large number of buttons or have pen-based operation to facilitate input. With a cell phone, you usually want a small device that's easy to whip out or stash in your pocket so you can open it at moment's notice. A combination would be cumbersome both as a phone and as a PDA. While I haven't personally used a combination device like the Treo, the point remains that it will be difficult to gracefully integrate the two kinds of devices, so such devices will never become popular given the scarcity of the good ones.

The same thing goes for laptops and desktops. Laptops are built for portability, and have to sacrifice certain things in order to attain that. They have to sacrifice processor speed due to heat concerns in a small case, they have to sacrifice expandability in favor of compactness, and some of the advanced I/O in favor of the more prevalent connectors. Sure, PowerBooks are an admirable attempt at sacrificing the least amount of stuff from a desktop, but a PowerMac G5 still trounces even the newest PowerBooks in almost every way except portability. "Integrating" laptops and desktops into a "desktop killer" would amount to eliminating the very reason for a laptop's existence. If a desktop killer were a viable device, laptops would already be the sole computers around today, and desktops would be a thing of the past.

It's not just a case of waiting for the technology to develop, either. Desktop technology is always one step ahead of laptop technology. The big and hot devices are created first and can easily go in a large case and sold to customers desiring the latest-and-greatest. Only then do companies concentrate their R&D effort on making smaller, lower-power versions of those same devices that can go into laptops. But by the time that those smaller versions are created, desktop technology has already moved on, so desktops still can't be eliminated entirely because they still have better features! This push in desktop technology isn't going to let up anytime in the future; there's always an ever-present need to increase the speed and complexity of intensive tasks such as games, digital film processing, and 3D rendering.

The very existence of the different specialized devices in the technology market is because there is a need to fill. One device that tries to do everything ends up being good at nothing. So if the devices diverged earlier, why would they end up converging later if there was a need to create separate devices in the first place? Arguing for convergence is basically amounting to denying that a market ever existed for the specialized devices, and that's clearly not the case.

There are cases where technologies or devices converge, but they're rare. There are only a couple reasons for convergence: the technologies have the same purpose but they use different methods and would benefit from combining the various methods, the two technologies fulfill purposes that are similar enough that they can eliminate redundant systems within the two while not sacrificing critical features, or the two technologies are almost always used hand in hand.

Instant messenging software is an example of technologies converging by fulfilling identical purposes. The various services -- AOL, ICQ, MSN, etc. -- all do almost exactly the same thing. They allow people who have signed up with the service to send text messages to each other, and often to send images and/or files. They all allow status messages, and they all have buddy lists. So this market was ripe for a convergence. Just look at how many multi-service instant messenging clients exist: Proteus, Fire, Adium, and that's just for the Mac. Trillian is one of the more popular ones on the Windows side of things. The technologies converged precisely because they all fulfilled identical purposes (the need to communicate through text online), and they all benefitted from the convergence (they allowed people to communicate with people on other services without having multiple IM apps open).

An example of two similar technologies eliminating redundant systems is the integration of refrigerator and freezer. Both of them have similar but slightly different purposes: storing food. They both require power and a cooling system, and neither of them lost a critical feature from the integration: portability isn't an issue, since you normally leave both your freezer and your fridge in one spot in the kitchen. So it made sense for these technologies to converge.

Finally, the phone and the answering machine is an example of two technologies almost always used hand in hand. Without a phone, an answering machine is worthless, because there's no way you can call or receive messages. Without a message machine, a phone is not nearly as useful, because if you're not always near the phone when it rings, you won't be able to get any information from the person calling. It makes complete sense for these technologies to converge.

None of these three criteria, however, apply to laptops and desktops, and they don't apply to cell phones, PDAs, and music players, either.

Take laptops and desktops, for instance. Laptops and desktops do similar things, it's true. They both run all the same computer programs and can link with all the same devices, but that's skirting around the main purpose of having a laptop: portability. This is a laptop's strong point, whereas speed, expandability, and more I/O is a desktop's strong point. Their purposes are too different for them to converge. Furthermore, laptops and desktops can't eliminate redundant systems by converging precisely because that would simply produce another desktop, eliminating the benefit of portability. Finally, laptops and desktops are almost never used at the same time: you either use your desktop when you're sitting at a desk, or you use your laptop when you want to be mobile. The only time they interact is when you want to exchange data between the two.

PDAs, cell phones, and music players are in a similar predicament. They clearly do not serve the same purpose. They could benefit from convergence by reducing redundant systems, but doing so would eliminate some critical features: the ease of use and the capacity of the music player (where instant satisfaction is critical, and where the click/scroll/touchwheel based input is key), the compactness of a cell phone (where it would be clumsy otherwise), and the high-end features of a PDA (pen-based input, larger screen, etc.). They all would clearly lose critical features. Finally, these devices aren't always used hand in hand either: I use my iPod just fine without even owning a cell phone or a PDA, and integrating them wouldn't enhance my music listening. It's worthless for these three devices to converge.

It's true that the devices can learn from each other and borrow features. For example, a cell phone is much more useful if you have a contact list that you can edit and use to call people. But that's not true convergence: for devices to converge, the final device has to eliminate the need for the other two entirely. Borrowing features simply lessens the need for the other device, but it doesn't eliminate it.

It's unclear why convergence is touted as being the future of some of these devices, anyway. Specialization is precisely the point of having different products and different companies that make those products: each device makes a certain task easier and it concentrates on only that one task. That's why we don't have a toaster integrated into a printer; it would just be a ridiculous piece of technology, and it would fail miserably.

So when another one of those analysts writes that the convergence of these devices is imminent, just point them to the kitchen, and ask why we don't have massive microwaves to replace our ovens. Or better yet, ask why we don't have printer-toasters. It's simply because convergence of these technologies is a myth.

-- Simone

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