Evil Downside of Better Mobile Devices: More to Carry & Choose

tab-vs-ipad

Yesterday, at our Net:Work event, Evan Kaplan from iPass spoke about the mobile workforce, and one phrase stuck me: Kaplan mentioned the concept of a new “hardware stack” in mobility. For the enterprise, that stack is composed of a phone, tablet and laptop. As both a member of the “mobilocracy,” or place-shifted workers, and a gadget-loving consumer, I can’t help but have this reaction to the hardware stack: “Just three devices? I wish!”

It’s almost counter-intuitive to the concept of mobility, but I find that I’m carrying more devices than ever, even as both hardware and software continue to improve. When I’m not toting numerous devices, I’m actually spending more time deciding which devices to bring and which are staying home. Granted, I could be an outlier; since I cover the mobile device scene for a living, there’s a plethora of laptops and phones to choose from, not to mention a MiFi, two cameras, a pair of wireless keyboards, an iPad and more.

Some of my gadgets have been replaced over time thanks to converged functionality. For example, I sold an Amazon Kindle 2 after buying my iPad; a few days of enjoying my Kindle books on the Apple tablet convinced me that I no longer needed my Kindle. That tradeoff made sense, and while not everyone would have made the same decision, it did reduce my mobile device load by one piece of hardware. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I found myself last night considering the purchase of a Galaxy Tab. Samsung has quickly sold one million of these popular 7-inch Android tablets.

Why would I buy one when I already have an Apple iPad? The reason actually applies to all of my devices: no one device fully takes the place of another because of compromises in functionality. Smartphones haven’t replaced laptops, and tablets don’t take the place of either, for example. Instead, as features are improving across all devices, form factors are evolving, which means we have more device choices for use in different contexts and locations.

My consideration of the Galaxy Tab is a perfect example: It appeals to me because it’s lighter and smaller than my iPad, but still offers much of the same functionality. That means I’m more likely to travel with the Tab, while my iPad is better suited — for me, anyway — around the house in places I don’t want to use a traditional computer: the couch, in bed, etc…. Of course, I’m heavily invested in iOS apps, so due to the “app lock in” costs, I’m not likely to trade in my iPad for the Tab!

I face a similar challenge when it comes to leaving the house with a camera. You wouldn’t think so, because the camera is the perfect poster child for device convergence: point and shoots are quickly fading in popularity due to improved smartphone cameras. In fact, the New York Times recently reported an 18 percent decline in the sales of point and shoots since 2008, largely due to phones with solid cameras. But when I cover the Consumer Electronics Show next month, readers won’t want to see marginal, camera phone pictures; they’ll want high-quality images and videos. I have to balance mobility with functionality.

I have an excellent DSLR in my Canon T1i, but there’s a problem: That camera is too bulky and heavy to effectively navigate the sea of attendees at CES. If that’s the case (and it is, given my past experience) and a smartphone camera just won’t do, what do I do? You guessed it: I just added a superb point and shoot to my device collection, the Canon S95, which fits in a pocket. So now I have yet another device to either carry or choose from, not just because of functionality, but because of form, weight and other factors.

Amid continuing advances in technology, one theorem still holds true for mobile devices: Every single one of them is a product of compromise. Want your laptop to run longer? That can be done, but you’ll either have to give up processing power or be stuck carrying an extended battery. Gotta have your latest videos filmed in 1080p? You’re not doing that on a smartphone yet, so you’ll need to tote a separate camera.

Devices are getting better, and everything is moving away from the desktop as consumers want to enjoy apps and services on the go. But for some reason, I feel like all of the improvements in mobiles are just weighing me down. Put another way: My mobile needs used to be met with a laptop and a phone. Now my hardware stack is getting so big I can’t carry it all. Am I alone in the quest for the perfect set of just a few gadgets that can really everything I need?

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