One Device to Rule Them All – I Think Not

Oct 14, 2009

There's a lot of discussion about the role of convergence of devices. Everywhere you go, it seems that someone's pushing the notion that every function needs to be converged into one device. Now convergence is a great idea: the idea of carrying one device instead of multiple devices is compelling, but is it really realistic? Sure, I'd rather carry one device than two, but our research shows consumers will carry two or, in some age demographics, they'll even carry as many as three.

Let's take a look at converged devices. The personal computer is one of only two successful converged devices, integrating multiple functions that work well together to achieve success in the digital home. (The other would be the consumer clock radio.) As I've talked about before, for the last several decades there have been a multitude of predictions regarding the death of the personal computer. The PC replaced dedicated word processors from companies like Wang in the 80s and 90s. In addition, it offered the flexibility to be an artist's tool and ignited a new digital revolution called desktop publishing.

While there was much discussion about the PC and it's role in the internet age and whether PCs would be replaced by lower cost "internet appliances", it seems the best way to deal with internet activities is still through the PC. In short, from a historical perspective, the PC is both the jack of trades and master of all. It is, in fact, the ultimate converged device that proves that other converged devices for the most part do not work well. One reason is that the PC performs tasks as well as, if not better than any standalone device.

By contrast, most other converged devices often take on too much functionality, which adds complexity to form as well as function, and ultimately makes them less valuable for most consumers who try to use them as such. True, the PC has certain drawbacks of its own. Despite efforts to create ultraportable PCs that are pocket sized, most of these efforts have not done well (with the arguable exception of those tiny PCs that have migrated to the pocket that we euphemistically call smartphones). The same versatility the PC provided in a desktop setting often becomes the Achilles heel for highly mobile consumer scenarios. User experiences optimized for mice and keyboards and large high-resolution display monitors often do not transfer well to smaller devices, leaving the rise of small, mobile optimized devices that are task centric for just a few activities that they are optimized well for.

Even as consumers will continue to embrace the PC for core activities, especially those driven around content creation and other creative tasks, the ability to consume and reference content will likewise shift to smaller, multi-function devices that are ubiquitous in nature, such as smartphones.

Five years ago, mobile device segmentation was easy: phones made calls, music players played music and cameras took pictures. Even two years ago, integrated devices remained differentiated from standalone devices with greater features and capabilities at more attractive price points. Despite recent advance of device capabilities, consumers remain interested in optimized devices for media and entertainment, especially in a contextual nature. It's one thing to listen to a music phone’s content at the gym. It's another to have all your content on plane from NY to Tokyo.

Think Device Integration, Not Convergence

Standalone and optimized functionality devices will not disappear. Instead devices will gain additional functionality to enhance and optimize their core functions when created properly. Like-features will migrate to like-features. The challenge for mobile device vendors, risking adding too much functionality into a specific device, is knowing what to leave out. Vendors must move from thinking of these devices as tiny little PCs in different form factors to embracing a new philosophy that must emerge to focus on how these devices differ from those that have come before, and how the integration of new technologies doesn't necessarily lead to a converged world where a single "device" replaces all others.

The real question is not about the uber-function device that does everything, it's how can a device with several functions find a place into a consumer hierarchy with several different devices, all of which may have some overlapping functionality. The answer, context, will determine the appropriate device for the appropriate moment.

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