Electronic Convergence

Long ago, in the deep dark days of technology where laptops were virtually non-existent, there was no Internet and using a phone while on the go required the use of a payphone, I carried almost nothing on me that was electronic other than my digital watch and a Walkman. That was it. A digital watch, a Walkman and a few cassette tapes was all that I needed. I was a student, and for me, computers were quite new, having come from a rural high school and a small town where the most sophisticated piece of technology that I encountered regularly was a photocopier.

As the landscape changed, and as technology evolved, the number of devices that I carried increased. First, oddly, I added a “laptop”, although that name is generous. It was a 15 pound HP monster that had a 12×80 character LCD screen, almost no local storage and a 300 baud modem. It didn’t see much use except as a remote terminal in my last year of university. That device eventually went to a better place, and I didn’t have another laptop for another half-dozen years. Over time, though, personal organizers came and went, a laptop of some kind became part of the standard inventory, along with a mobile phone. The Walkman eventually was replaced by a Discman. Over time, that gave way to an iPod. The personal organizer was replaced by a Newton, followed by a series of Palm and Windows Mobile devices. Portable game machines like the Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable soon joined the crowd. A digital camera became standard equipment.

At the peak, when I was travelling, I was carrying with me enough technology to stock a small Best Buy outlet: laptop, mobile phone, PDA, music player, game machine, a digital camera, portable wireless router, portable ethernet hub, and one or two portable hard drives (for extra data and backups). Plus a charger for each device. I had one trip where I had 2 laptops (don’t ask, it’s complicated) as part of this mess. And this list of toys wasn’t just for business trips. Because of the nature of my work at the time, this kind of stuff went with me on family vacations as well. It was nuts.

However, the electronic bits weren’t the only element in this inventory. I also had books, mainly for relaxation, but on occasion for technical reference.  There were times where I was working on a project while on the road, and much of the reference material I needed was only available in dead tree form. I had to limit what I brought, simply because I didn’t want to schlep a library through airports. On occasion, books were put into checked luggage. In addition to paper, I had plastic: DVD’s with movies and TV shows so I had something to watch, when I didn’t like what was on TV or available on the plane, or waiting in the lounge between flights for a couple of hours. I also had game storage for the game machine (first game cartridges for the DS, then UMD discs for the PSP), all of which add up in terms of space.

The appearance of the smartphone and tablets have changed this immensely. For business trips, I take at most 3 devices: a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet. For family trips, I can leave the laptop at home. Even with the 3 devices, I carry at most 2 chargers (one shared between the phone and tablet, and one for the laptop). If I was ruthless, I could limit myself to just the laptop charger, since I can charge the phone and tablet off of the laptop. For books, I might bring one actual book. Most of the books I bring, and pretty much all of my technical reference material, is on the tablet in the form of electronic books. I have a library of over a dozen technical reference books at my disposal, along with reading material for relaxation. I have hours of music, movies and TV shows along for the ride.

At it’s peak, my world required a rather large computer bag, and in some instances a bag and a backpack, to bring my world along. Now, I can get what I need into a single, modestly-sized computer bag with room to spare. I went from carrying 20-30 lbs. of stuff around to having to carry about 10lbs. It makes security at the airport orders of magnitude easier. It means that I have what I need when I need it, and I’m not compromising because of space or weight limitations.

This tale is about convergence. It’s about the move away from the special purpose to the general purpose. Where I used to have a phone, PDA, game machine and camera, I now have a smartphone. Where I used to have to carry a bunch of books and DVD’s around, I have a tablet. The laptop has shrunk in size and weight, and grown in power, allowing me to do some fairly complex software development work almost anytime and anywhere. My smartphone is a wireless network base station, so I can connect my devices and share data between them. The phone is also my Internet access for those times where I don’t have access through other means. I can be productive nearly anywhere with these 3 devices. In situations where I don’t need the programming environment, I can easily get by with just 2, a phone and a tablet. When I’m out and about, the phone is often enough for my needs.

Because of these developments, it should come as no surprise that we see a stream of news about the decline of the special purpose device. News came out the other day that e-book sales tripled over last year, and that the sale of print books has declined dramatically. What wasn’t outlined in those numbers is what percentage when to general purpose tablets like iPad and Android, and what percentage were downloaded onto special-purpose e-readers like Kindle. However, there was also news that Nintendo 3DS sales didn’t match the original DS during the first week of their respective sales and that iOS and Android devices are taking marketshare away from Nintendo. Add to this news the end of the Flip video camera, another special purpose mobile device. All of these are, to me, indications of the decline of the special purpose device.

There is a new Playstation Portable coming, but I’m not sure that I will get it. I got an original PSP using reward points, and I preferred it over the Nintendo DS Lite (it was more comfortable to use and play, physically, for me, and I preferred the games that were available). When the PSP Go came out, I got one of those. It had a better screen, and better battery life, and smaller is always welcome. I don’t see a point in buying the next one that comes out. I haven’t played the PSP in well over a year now. When I game on the go, I either use my phone or my tablet.

I also see no point in bothering with a Kindle device, given I run the Kindle app on my tablet. I may still bring my digital camera for some trips, simply because it is easier to use in some circumstances. But even that is a question mark. Unless I need a really high-end camera, I am unlikely to buy another one anytime soon. With the navigation capabilities of my phone and tablet, I’m not sure that I would bother with a dedicated device like a Garmin or a TomTom.

For me, being able to reduce my inventory of devices and supporting equipment from around 10 devices, multiple kilograms of paper, discs and chargers, and a few cubic feet of occupied space, down to 3 devices and 2 chargers, is a massive step forward. It provides a level of simplicity and convenience I didn’t have before. It makes it easier to pack, less likely I’ll leave something behind, and simplifies travel locally and over long distances.

Will this get reduced down even further? Possibly. I can see my regular laptop (a 17″ Macbook Pro) eventually being replaced by something physically smaller. I do use a 11″ Macbook Air in some cases, but only when I don’t need to have the screen space and computing power of the Macbook Pro. I am unlikely, for now, to just have a tablet, even if it gains phone capabilities. Having a phone I can hold in my hand, and not require the use of a headset, is still preferred for me. That may change in the future. For now, I’m happy that I can keep the inventory to 2 to 3 devices. I won’t be surprised to see it all reduced down to one in the future, but I expect that day is a ways off for what I need.

For me, the general purpose has won out over the special or single-purpose. But, I do miss that old Walkman…