Are We Seeing The Rise of Mobile Device Fragmentation?

The rumoured Facebook Phone (apparently code-named “Buffy”) has made the rounds today. This, along with the Amazon Kindle Fire, Barnes & Noble Nook, the Kobo, have got me wondering if we are seeing the return of the fragmented mobile device market? Granted, the underlying platforms are still (more or less) general purpose, but their primary aim is for a somewhat single activity. In the case of the Facebook phone, the idea is to tightly integrate the device with the Facebook ecosystem, presumably to be able to give Facebook developers a standard platform for the products (and another stream of revenue for Facebook). The Kindle, Nook and Kobo are aimed directly at people wanting access to those respective ecosystems for books, video, music and apps. While the same could be said about the iPad, the one key difference is that the iPad, while dependent on the iTunes App Store for apps, can be used to access other content-driven ecosystems like Netflix, Amazon (for books, at any rate) and such. Apple has allowed competitors in the content space to access their devices.

Does this mean we might see people carrying around a bunch of tablets (small phone-sized ones, larger 7″, 8″ or 10″ ones) for various purposes? I can see something like this happening:

“Well, the Facebook phone is best for Facebook, which I use a lot, but I still use my Samsung Galaxy for all my other phone activities because there are apps I use that Facebook won’t allow and it lets me use a better Twitter app, and I have my iPod Touch for my music collection and some games, plus I carry a Motorola Xoom for Internet, email and document editing because I like the screen and there are apps I use that Amazon won’t carry, in addition to the Kindle Fire because it gives me a better experience for my books and movies…”.

Given the rise of data and voice sharing plans (where multiple devices all share the same voice and data plan), it means that people could conceivably do this without also having to have separate plans (potentially on separate carriers) to make it feasible. The ability to turn some phones into wireless hotspots makes integration possible, and avoid the need to make everything a 3G/4G device. But, some of these (notably some of the larger tablets) require custom chargers. The Samsung Galaxy tablets don’t charge via any laptop I’ve found (at least the 7″ Tab that I have for development and testing doesn’t). The Nook requires it’s own charger. At least the phones still charge via a laptop USB.

I do not lament the days of a carrying case or backpack full of devices (plus their attendant wall chargers) when I travelled. The old inventory, for me, was scary. I was like a walking BestBuy. I had two phones (one personal, one for work), a PDA, an iPod, a portable game console, a digital camera and a laptop. That inventory is now cut in half: a phone, a tablet and a laptop. Mine are all Apple products, so I only need 2 chargers, and I really could get away with charging all of it through the laptop. Even while just walking about, I now can use one device (my iPhone) instead of needing 3 (two phones plus the PDA), and I also get Internet access on the go where none was available before.

I have no plans to go back to having a small electronics store with me when I travel. If Facebook wants me, they can continue to maintain the app on the iPhone and iPad. I read my Kindle books via the Kindle app on my iPad when I’m on the road. I can’t buy Amazon video content in Canada, so my primary channel there is iTunes. But I can certainly see the potential for people to drag along a number of electronic devices, because each offers a superior experience or better functionality over some other device. It’s great for the companies that make them, but it isn’t a situation I want to find myself in ever again.

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