It wasn’t that long ago when “convergence” was the buzzword du jour. Everywhere I turned, I heard about the features from two or more devices melding into a single unit. I remember when cameras started appearing in mobile handsets; I scoffed at the low-resolution sensors back then. In fact, they epitomized my personal feelings on the convergence matter. “What’s the point?” I kept saying to myself. “Why should I purchase a converged device when the added feature can’t compete with the same function of a dedicated device?”
For that reason, my purchase decisions often focused on standalone devices and their higher feature quality. Having a phone with a camera was a novelty to me back then because the VGA quality of .3-megapixels sounded silly when compared to a 3- or 6-megapixel dedicated camera. Fast-forward to present day, and it’s easy to find phones with a higher sensor resolution than that camera I had a few years back. Add in some quality optics and good software and you just might get me to drop my shooter. OK, maybe not, since I now use a 12.2 -megapixel DSLR, but the point remains: Once an added feature gains a certain level of acceptable quality, many folks will go for the converged device and carry one less thing.
Cameras aren’t the only example here: You could just as easily apply digital audio playback to the convergence idea. A small handful of years ago, the idea of using my phone to play music was laughable for several reasons. You’d run out of space after storing just an album of two, for starters. Displays weren’t nearly as prominent as they are today, and user interfaces for secondary functions were typically an afterthought at best. Then we saw memory prices drop while capacities rose. Displays matured, and in some cases they’ve become the primary input method on a handset. Detail and attention to music management software have greatly improved. In short, I’m no longer losing functionality when dropping my digital audio player for my phone. The convergence trend of the past several years has finally delivered.
But now, I’m sensing a new trend about to emerge that in some ways is a direct reversal of that convergence trend we’ve witnessed as of late; devices are becoming dedicated, single-purpose and standalone again. What’s the main driver for this trend reversal? In a word: connectivity.
Take Amazon’s (s AMZN) Kindle device. It’s a standalone e-book reader, and much of its success is due to the eInk display technology and Amazon’s vast digital content store. But this isn’t the first, nor is it the only, eInk device that can read books. Sony’s Reader, Bookeen’s Cybook and Foxit’s eSlick all employ a similar technology. Each of those devices also reads multiple content formats, although none have the array of titles that Amazon enjoys. And from a convergence factor, I’ve been able to read e-book content on my computer for year. It’s not the display nor is it the content that enable the Kindle to thrive, though: It’s the nearly-invisible, integrated wireless broadband connectivity that appeals to consumers. This single function removes the barrier between consumer and consumption.
How about another example that bucks the convergence trend: the Peek. This small, thin device does one thing and one thing only. It does email. That’s it, although the company has snuck in text messaging in the latest version. The Peek uses T-Mobile’s EDGE network to send and receive messages, and consumers are none the wiser on how this wireless magic works. By adding connectivity to a simple keyboard, screen and jog-wheel, Peek created a standalone, inexpensive single-purpose device similar to products Research in Motion had before they created their converged BlackBerry handsets.
What about devices that have several so-so features but could make for excellent, function-specific usage? I think back two years ago, when Nokia updated their Internet Tablet with the announcement of the N800. This pocketable device offers a Linux-based web experience and supports a number of third-party applications. With the integrated webcam and the right software, you can record videos or have a voice over IP chat with anyone in the world. It also includes a small keyboard, an FM radio, stereo speakers and a touchscreen: there’s isn’t much room to add anything else in this converged device.
Even with all of these features in a portable package, the device isn’t what I’d call a “hit” by most measures. It has a solid fan following and it’s a nice device, based on my own usage. But mainstream consumers have a hard time latching onto it, partially because too much emphasis was placed on the convergence features and not enough effort was placed on usability and simplicity for the average non-technical person.
Here’s the ironic part about Nokia’s Internet Tablet. Since it has wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi and Bluetooth only) and a web browser it’s actually the poster child for connected, single task devices I’m expecting to see. If you’re addicted to Twitter, FriendFeed or other web-based social products, the N800 is for you. You can take it with you everywhere, see what your friends are doing on the small but usable screen and pound out short bursts of updates with the keyboard. Without connectivity, you’d have a brick with a useless screen and a bunch of keys.
Think about that for a minute. For a while now, we’ve been cramming features and functions into handsets for one main reason: the connectivity was already in the phone. Now we’re starting to witness that connectivity break out of the traditional handset and into other consumer devices. With Wi-Fi hotspots and for-pay networks popping up, not to mention national 3G and future 4G connectivity, we just might see a vast number of useful and connected single-purpose devices on the horizon.
Kevin C. Tofel is the Managing Editor of jkOnTheRun.