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Smartphones do too much: convergence is giving way to divergence

For years, the holy grail of personal tech has been convergence. Now that we essentially have a version of that in the form of smartphones – which allow fairly sophisticated computing for most daily needs, from accomplishing work to playing music – ironically many of us are discovering the need to extract some of those functions and instead carry multiple devices, such as a smartphone, a tablet, and a smartwatch all at once.

I call this trend divergence; let’s look at a few factors that are driving it.

Increasing complexity

Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of components in integrated circuit chips doubles every 18 months, made it possible to drive more power from a small footprint of electronics. With Moore’s Law on their side and users demanding to carry more with less, entrepreneurs seized the opportunity, and began fitting more functions into a single device, thus paving the way to convergence.

However, as newer functions get bundled into a single device, the interface often (but certainly not always) becomes more complex. Therefore a need arises to extract certain functions in a separate device in a form factor that makes more sense for that function.

As an example, Google Glass is arguably a better form factor to capture a video while taking a roller coaster ride than trying to hold onto your phablet. And a Pebble Watch provides a simpler and easier interface to view and control music while on the go. Ironically, Moore’s Law is also playing a big role in divergence of devices: The ability to fit more power in limited space is crucial for these new form factors to work.

Horizontal solutions

Clayton Christensen explains in the Innovator’s Solution that when interfaces between components aren’t well-defined, vertically integrated products tend to do very well. For instance, the Mac did very well in the early years of personal computing in part because of the tight integration between its hardware and operating system.

Similarly, when Apple introduced the iPhone six years ago, the smartphone industry was still in a relatively early phase. Apple was able to take advantage of a lack of well-defined interfaces by joining together computing, telephony, and music in a vertically integrated device. It would have been extremely hard for a small startup to come up with a converged device like an iPhone at that time: Apple not only had expertise in both software and hardware, it also benefited strongly from its partnerships (music labels, movie studios, app developers large and small) all along the value chain.

Yet, coming on six years from when the first iPhone launched, I believe that the industry has now entered a stage where the tight coupling of mobile hardware and software, while beneficial, is not the only winning strategy. APIs and interfaces such as WiFi, Bluetooth and location platforms are well established, consistent and understood. Therefore smaller independent players such as Fitbit (disclosure: see below) and its many competitors, along with the many smart watches, credit card readers, security beacons coming out every day, can succeed by leveraging these popular interfaces and platforms to deliver new applications that function better on their own.

There’s no doubt that vertically integrated players like Apple will still have some advantages – Apple’s rumored iWatch for one would presumably provide native iOS support to do many things that something like the Pebble Watch cannot do (for example, selectively turn on app notifications; similarly it can only preview emails from Gmail on an Android device).

But thanks to these well-established platforms, we will have no shortage of newer companies venturing into the digital devices arena.

Master of one

Now that smartphones and tablets offer several functions quite satisfactorily, there is an emerging trend to solve very specific problems very well. As Nokia’s Marko Ahtisaari said in an interview with Slashgear, “there’ll be room for more and more dedicated devices that do a few things really well again.” Already Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite remains  the device of choice for those who are hardcore e-book readers, especially those who read in sunlight. Users could easily opt to read the same Kindle book on their smartphone or tablet but choose the device that does this one task best.

And I will not be shocked if specialized music players that only stream music from popular services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Rdio and the like start appearing in the market. Of course, feasibility of such devices will also require newer business models that can enable affordable data plans.

While convergence will continue to move forward in certain areas – such as in the home entertainment space, where a single TV will compress several functions offered by separate set-top boxes into one device – newer form factors, horizontal solutions, specialization, and above all human ingenuity will ensure that we never run out of the need to carry multiple devices. At least not until advancements in materials science and technology enable a single device to take multiple forms.

Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Saad Fazil writes about emerging trends in the high-tech industry, especially in the areas of social, location and mobile. He writes at itval.e. Follow him on Twitter @ sfrocks.

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8 Responses to “Smartphones do too much: convergence is giving way to divergence”

  1. Nice article. Sometimes I feel that the companies are taking us for a ride by offering multiple functions in one single device. I am professional and I use devices that perform one function very efficiently. I agree that everyone can not spend money to buy stand alone devices, still the IT companies should be more careful while offering multiple functions. My surveys have shown that most of the young people in India do not use many functions. Their main usage is for making calls, messages or visiting social network sites. The need is to educate users to decrease use of non essential functions and save time and energy for enjoying life in a more productive and better ways. Serious thinking is needed. Thans for the article. Prof. Keshav Sharma from India

  2. Totally agree with this article. Love my smartphone, but my old flip phone, without the need to log on and load the phone app, would still be the best option in a situation where someone needs it to primarily make constant calls.

  3. This is a natural progression of many innovations. Look at the calculator for example. It became a complex engineering tool over time but the average user merely wanted simple arithmetic. This will happen to smartphones. Yes, they will do things like healthcare, remote controllers, etc, but simplicity in dedicated (and connected) devices will win out in the long run.

  4. Nicholas Paredes

    I used to argue for something like a personal area network centered on the phone. In 2001, it looked to me like something of a collaborative OS needed to evolve allowing chips to build processing power through collaboration. Perhaps, it is more like a personal area cloud.

    Being able to open an AI Writer file on my phone, or tablet, or Mac is helpful even though it is non optimal. One of the big problems that Android demonstrates best, is that people want all of their devices to do everything. If Samsung’s ads don’t attest to this nothing does.

    It is the connection that is important, but the interface isn’t far behind. In fact I be
    I’ve we are soon in for a change in mobile interface design. The line between web, app, and OS is hopelessly blurring. Twitter is a great example of a product, that is an app service and web service at the same time. I wish that some of our notification services were as robust.

    My Sonos already streams music services, but when it was forgetting where my library was it became a $1000 brick. It is exactly the best example why software services are the glue, and why hardware will have such a hard time keeping up. Sonos fixed the service through an update.

    Don’t make me think!