Form and function

Will the future belong to converged multi-function gadgets, or will predominantly single function devices still have an important role to play?

At first glance, it's easy to assume that the world is moving towards converged multi-function devices. It is more convenient for consumers and business users to carry one device instead of many. There is also the technology driver: whereas previously it was not possible to fit everything into one device, now it will surely happen. Device producers will innovate by adding more functions, and will use these in various combinations to differentiate their products.

Beyond all this, there is the functional argument: by combining capabilities into a single device, applications or services can share data and integrate functions, providing convenience or possibilities that separate devices had precluded. An example is a unified address book function, which not only holds phone numbers for each contact but also email addresses (for the email function), and website bookmarks (for the browsing function). In the past, contact lists on mobile phones tended to store only names and numbers, but it makes sense for a phone that has Global Positioning System (GPS) and mapping functions to also accommodate postal addresses for each contact.

'Swiss army' devices

So, will devices that have only limited abilities be relegated to the bottom of the heap? I don't think so. Recall the old phrase: "Jack of all trades, master of none". Devices that try to do too many different things can often compromise on all of them. In fact, the need to make comprom-ises when designing multi-function converged devices is, I believe, the key reason why the predominantly single-function device will survive.

Firstly, the designer of 'Swiss Army Knife' type gadgets has to make important choices about physical form factor and design. This class of device tends to be less sexy and chic in terms of aesthetics, because there are so many often conflicting physical requirements to be satisfied. Any display screen that is provided for one function (say, SMS) is probably different to one optimised for movie playback. A camera lens used as a camcor--der needs to be positioned differently, relative to a display, from one designed for video messaging. And the optimal layout for the controls and how one holds a still picture camera are rather different to the way one holds and uses a phone.

Another form of compromise for the converged multi-function device is in power consumption. A portable device with more functions requires more energy and thus compromises on the time between replacing or recharging its power source. Bigger capacity batteries add consider-able weight to the design and compromise physical design and convenience.

But perhaps the biggest area of compromise is usability. The more functions a device is capable of, the more complex it is to cope with. The challenge is to improve the experience for users while giving them more capabilities. Cramming more features into a device adds to its complexity. The innovations associated with the integration of applications and services which this facilitates can be even more baffling for users to understand.

And anyway, some people just want a phone or a camera or a music player that is simple and fulfils their need - or they want a gadget that is optimised for the best combination of form-factor, performance, quality and price - all attributes associated with the dedicated purpose-designed device. From an economic perspective of innovation, we need both classes of device, those which drive new leading-edge combinations of capability 'all-in-one' to be sold in enough numbers that the best features make their way into simpler devices for the masses. 

iPod or N95: which is sexier?

The most obvious contender for a 'Swiss army knife' of devices at the moment is probably Nokia's N95 cellular phone (shown right) which also has GPS, five megapixel camera, music and video player, gaming and provides a way to read email, do instant messaging and browse the Web.  

The term 'brick' is frequently used to describe these 'heavyweight', very capable devices, as the incorporation of more hardware tends to add real weight to the product either directly or due to the battery size required. It is interesting to consider how this term has changed its meaning since the original incarnation of the mobile phone! In those times, the device that was only a phone was given this tag, while now it is reserved for the multi-purpose all-in-one gadgets.

Many may have expected me to highlight the iPhone here, but I am actually very impressed with Apple's determined ability to limit the feature quantity in their products and to define their product range carefully, despite calls to add more and more to products. The classic iPod is a good example of how both the importance of maintaining an attractive form-factor and design, as well as not compromising the user experience, has influenced how slowly it has incorporated more functions and thus remains the iconic media player.  It has also allowed the price of an iPod to reduce over time, expanding its potential market further.

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