Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Enough With The Convergence, Already!

Here’s a bit of contrarian thought from a true gadget lover: convergence has gotten way out of control.

Convergence can be cute—it sometimes enhances portability (e.g. carry one gadget instead of two—unless the converged device is characteristically bulky), offers occasional riffs of functional harmony (click on the address book entry to dial), and eventually reduces cost (but not until the third generation of product). It also pumps up the Cool Factor in those of us who appreciate technology for its own sake.

But these considerations are trivial compared to Battery Life, Usability, and Functionality. That’s why so many converged devices look a whole lot better on the pages of Wired than they do after 30 days of real use.

Just think about the best single-purpose cameras, email devices, cell phones, MP3 players, e-book readers, portable DVD players, mobile video playback units, GPS navigators, portable game stations, USB storage keys, remote control units and satellite radios. Each has a different set of features that works best for that application. For example:

• Battery type: small rechargeable battery for camera, AAA for MP3, watch battery for remote control, huge lithium polymer for video player, none for USB key…

• Keys: keypad for phone, QWERTY for email, none for MP3, Play/Pause type buttons for Video and DVD, programmable keys for remote control, multi-directional keys for gaming, zoom sliders for cameras…

• Screen size: High res, big (expensive) DVD and gaming screen, tiny cell phone screen, no USB key screen…

• Speakers: High fidelity MP3 and DVD, Bluetooth phone, integrated speaker in game player, none in a navigator…

So one device means there are always compromises, and lots of them. Converged devices will never work as well as single purpose ones. Ever use your cell phone to type out a blog, take a decent picture, or play a compelling video game?

Second, you need a robust operating system for converged, general purpose computers. Personally, I prefer handy devices that don’t require pull down menus, styluses, hourglasses, and frequent system crashes.

Third, one device means one battery. But carry 3 or 4 devices with you (easy if you carry a purse like I do), and each device has juice. Then, when the Nokia battery poops out because you’ve blathered on the phone for too long (“No, honey bunny, YOU hang up first…”), you can still fire emails and crank up the iPod.

Finally, it’s far easier to use multiple devices simultaneously. Consult your GPS navigator while talking on the phone. Lend your Sony PSP to your kid while you finish watching Spanglish on the DVD player. Look at your calendar without having to take the phone away from your ear (unless you also carry around a Jabra and requisite charger).

All these lessons apply as well to other modern day sporks like home automation controllers or Media Center. Lots of things make sense to integrate into these systems, but you still want the light switches, alarm panel, and thermostat to stay on the wall right where they are now. You want your music controller easily accessible without navigating menus or interrupting your kid’s homework so you can get to the PC. If you install video surveillance, you want to see the image near the front door, not in your office. They can still be networked for central control (that’s why Bessemer invested so much in Zensys, the Z-Wave company), but if you muck with the human interface element, you’ll stir riots in the household.

That’s why people I know who already use Crestron or Media Center in their homes, are buying SONOS systems for their home audio. There’s just no substitute for having the perfect music controller at hand. (I fell in love with these babies at CES—they were the sexiest thing in Vegas.)

Pushing the envelope on convergence impresses Engadget readers, but newer Swiss Army Gizmos with one more half-assed gimmick will always spill out of next week’s Korean container shipments. Meanwhile, the great, lasting brands are built on single purpose innovation: Apple iPod, Nikon camera, Motorola push-to-talk, Sony PSP, Palm PDA (the original), Panasonic DVD, Philips Pronto remote controllers, and one day SONOS audio control (no, I’m not a SONOS shareholder).

If you’re with me on this, tune in on Friday for my list of favorite gadgets on the market, including some new, unannounced beauties.


  1. Anonymous11:47 AM

    you're just afraid that if everything converges, you won't have a reason to carry your man bag anymore :)

  2. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Ambient Devices ( often pitches itself as leading a wave of, "divergence devices." Although they are a licensing company, not a product company as many assume, they do seem to get that basic problem of overwhelming devices with so much that none of it is particularly good.

  3. I agree. That is why I choose to leave my cell phone and mobile email in separate devices.

    I look forward to your favorite gadget list. What would be even more interesting is thumb-rules or common themes distinguishing "good" integration from "bad" integration. How much of this is dependent on your life-style i.e. whether you carry a purse or a wallet, whether you remember to charge your devices regularly ?