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Converging on convergence.

It is a fact of modern marketing that device makers often try to create ecosystems around their products. They seek to provide accessories for their gadgets, often as hardware but increasingly as software add-ons. One consequence of this ability to add capabilities to devices is the ability to concentrate functions previously requiring many gadgets in a single piece of hardware - just one form of convergence. The word 'convergence' is an overloaded term in the communications industry. Here, I want to explore how devices are beginning to implement convergence in a number of ways.

The most common form of convergence is combining functions on one device. Today's mobile phone offers decent implementations of the functions of a music player and what used to be carried as a separate personal digital assistant (PDA), such as a calendar, contacts and note-taking facilities. There are many ways to combine different sets of functions and a range of choices when it comes to the platform which the devices are based on, be it Windows Mobile, PalmOS, or OS X. It is healthy for the marketplace and innovation generally that these choices exist. It is also the case that single-function devices are still marketed, often concentrating on doing one task really well, or within some exceptional performance criteria, without the inevitable design compromises of a multifunctional device.

The second type of convergence brings together more than one role or context for the user. How many people have you seen juggling more than one device in order to look at their personal home diary as well as a work calendar on their company's enterprise system? This convergence is even more powerful when implemented across a number of applications - calendars, address books and email accounts, for example. One device showing, for example, a complete but filterable picture of your personal information spanning home and work contexts is extremely powerful.

The third type of convergence is in access networks. It wasn't so long ago that users would need to change to a different device if they needed a different network connection, for speed, greater coverage or some other reason. More devices now support multiple networking technologies. Device designers are increasingly realising that making intelligent selection and access to different networks transparent to the user is vital. Streamlining authentication to networks and concealing changeover between networks is essential to making it easy for people to use a device. And if you make something easy, people will do it.

Blackberry and Apple jam: recipe for data and devices

There is another form of convergence. This is about cooperation between devices. It will never be enough to make one gadget that does everything and fits in your pocket apart, perhaps, from in the marketing departments for new products. In the real world, people will always carry a number of devices that share subsets of information. These may include, for example, consumer electronics products installed in homes, devices provided by employers, and personal devices owned by other family members. People will want to bring information together from these different devices in a secure way, but with the flexibility to suit their needs.

This raises all sorts of challenges. The synchronisation of data held on different devices needs to be intelligent, to avoid situations where for example a user mistakenly erasing a dataset on one device automatically erases everything that uses that dataset on all the other devices. It also needs to be done fairly transparently, so that the user is not incessantly bothered by the device asking whether they really want to add another address to the contacts list on their PC. This tends to suggest keeping a networked copy of the dataset to enable any device to synchronise as needed. Such solutions also provide an example of how one form of convergence is enabled by another: converged access to networks is key to this converged process for data.

The Internet browser has provided a converged user interface for many applications. As more devices provide a browser interface, the availability of applications hosted in the network cloud will increase. While some people are betting on the cloud as the ultimate destination for all applications and data, I believe there are all sorts of human-related reasons why people will want at least the option of carrying some of their digital information and processing capabilities around with them. Let's exploit the network more, but let's also combine the power of the end users' devices too. Those that manage these complex convergence processes may well be the ultimate winners.

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