The Convergence Con

Chris Davies - Dec 15, 2010, 7:30 am CST
The Convergence Con

Tablets, iSuppli tells us, are the new epicenter for convergence, part smartphone and part notebook. It’s not a new story; every few months the convergence debate rears its head, suggesting the latest and greatest device category is pulling together the disparate threads of modern digital life and blurring the overall lines between segments in the process. Yet, despite the soothsaying, the “converged” experience still falls well short of the holistic ecosystem we’ve been promised: we have more devices than ever before, and they seldom talk well to each other.

“The definition of convergence has changed over time,” iSuppli analyst William Kidd explains, “with the latest version describing it as voice, video and data services being delivered to the home vis-à-vis broadband networks and the new services that would result from this confluence.” He reckons the tablet form factor is “a tangible representation of that convergence, since it is part smart phone and part notebook.” It’s not just hardware, either; “mobile OSes enable interconnectivity between connected devices,” Kidd promises, “and thus generate even more new use cases.”

Now, I won’t argue that I’m not an early adopter, of sorts. I probably have more devices on the go at any one time than most regular consumers might. But, it’s also not unusual for any one person to have a smartphone, at least one computer – whether PC, Mac or otherwise – and, increasingly, a tablet in-between, and share their usage among them. That – even if you keep resolutely in-ecosystem, such as only buying a MacBook, iPad and iPhone 4 – opens the door to multiple user frustrations.

We’ve grown used to having our Gmail or Exchange Mail synchronized across multiple devices, but email is no longer the extent of our messaging. Twitter, Facebook and other services all ping out the latest missives; it’s up to the user to read them or dismiss them on each device. For example: my Android smartphone buzzes to let me know about a new Twitter reply in Seesmic, so I check the message there. Problem is, the Galaxy Tab has also buzzed with the same reply, also in Seesmic, only there’s no way for it to know I’ve already read it. Meanwhile, push notifications on iOS devices like the iPad also pick up the fresh reply and trigger their own pop-ups.

It’s not just Twitter, of course; that’s just one example. I can’t be alone, though, in glancing at the notification bar on Android or the unread message notifiers on iOS apps and wondering whether they’re actually new updates or in fact just remnants of previous conversations I’ve already dealt with.

The standalone-versus-managed debate brings its own problems. Apple has been criticized for the extent to which the iPad relies on iTunes on your Mac or PC in order for its management, with Android tablets praised as being far more autonomous. Neither, though, addresses the real management shortcoming: that is, a single user identity that pervades all devices and services. Exchange or Google Sync does a little of that, keeping email, contacts and calendar entries harmonized over multiple platforms (though you’ll still get calendar alarms flagged up on each one, even if you’ve dismissed it elsewhere), and there are standalone services for different sync silos, such as files in Dropbox, but no overarching digital identity, no “Exchange for Life”.

Arguably the tablet is a poor center-point for convergence. Oversized in comparison to smartphones, under-functional versus a proper notebook (or, in many cases, even a netbook) it’s less likely to travel with you wherever you go. There’s an argument for a centralized identity device – a Sony Ericsson LiveView that’s the hub of your digital life, rather than one Bluetooth-tethered branch of it – but the perennial issues of battery life and compatibility raise their heads.

Instead, I need a single protocol respected by all devices, all services, all apps. My “Exchange for Life” would bypass duplicated messages, old versions of files, even things like routing incoming calls, texts and voicemails to the device that’s currently active. It would be intelligent enough to tailor that information to the limits of the gadget on which I’m consuming it, without necessarily limiting future usability: if I’m sent a photo gallery, I want it resized down to suit the smartphone or Bluetooth watch screen I first view it on, without losing the full-resolution versions that I might later browse on my tablet or HDTV. That resizing should all happen server-side, too, rather than relying on my device’s CPU and the vagaries of the wireless network – and, potentially, unnecessarily counting toward my data bundle – by being processed locally. I’d prefer it if devices were clever enough to use P2P local transfers if, say, my tablet had a high-res photo I wanted to view in low-res on my phone, rather than having to re-download it from the original server.

Convergence is, I think, easy if you only look at it from a device perspective. Tablets obviously offer a better browsing and video experience than a smartphone does, and the various app stores out there are bulging with compelling titles. As iSuppli predicts, content creation on tablets is also likely to catch up, as manufacturers and OS developers get to grips with the new paradigm. What’s seemingly overlooked is the fact that few people actually pick up a single converged device and abandon all others in its favor. Instead, tablets have to live within an ecosystem already populated with smartphones, notebooks, servers and services. Picking out the latest and greatest in hardware is easy; getting it to work in a fully integrated way with the rest of your digital life is still beyond us.

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