The myth of technology convergence

The myth of technology convergence

Summary: The convergence fantasy is you luxuriating in a bubble bath of digital goodness. The reality: your heart surgeon pulling out a Swiss Army knife. Feeling better?

myth technology convergence

With the failure of the crowdsourcing for the Ubuntu phone, a noble attempt, it's worth looking at Mr. Shuttleworth's vision of a single device converged world. It is a myth, pure and simple.

There are many examples of converged technologies that show the advantages and limitations of convergence.

Swiss Army knife
I've carried one for years. Sometimes I want to cut a thread. Other times open a package. File a nail. Pull out a splinter. Swiss Army knife to the rescue!

And yet I own other scissors. Other knives. Other files and tweezers.

Why? For the same reason that few people - who can afford it - will own just one computing device: More demanding and specialized tasks need better tools.

Take camera phones. You have a phone with a camera. Is this convergence?

At one level, of course, it is. But when we look at the rest of the camera ecosystem - funded by the popularity of camera phones - we see that cheap cameras are being subsumed by camera phones. But we also see incredible divergence.

Digital SLR's that give you near film quality video. 4K video cameras. Super high speed video. Digital SLR guts and put into a film camera form factor with high-quality lenses. And add-ons for camera phones and action cam's that make them competitive with low-end video cameras.

In evolutionary biology there is a concept called punctuated equilibrium. Things are steady for a long time and then: volcanos; asteroids; global warming.

There is a huge die off and then an incredible rush of diversity as new species evolve to fill every ecological niche. And then a lesser die off as those new species are winnowed down to the few winners.

Disk drive vendors - over 200 through the years - are down to three. But storage systems - aided by drive standardization - are showing more variety than ever - with much more coming in the next few years.

SSDs flowered with dozens of vendors. Yet the field is rapidly consolidating with some of the early winners now losers.

The Storage Bits take
Poor people benefit by smartphones because anything is way better than nothing. But as you move up economically your time becomes more valuable and it pays to have better tools.

The real problem Mr. Shuttleworth's device solves is synchronizing data across devices - by eliminating other devices. While no one has nailed syncing, it will be solved, and suddenly we'll have one less reason to converge.

Complementarity - not convergence - is the future. A notebook for editing and producing. A smartphone for on-the-go idea capture and communication. A tablet for viewing and reviewing while relaxing.

I carry my Swiss Army knife everywhere because it's handy. But it complements, not replaces, more capable individual tools.

So it will be with digital convergence.

Comments welcome, of course. Do you ever see yourself converging on a single device? Why, or why not?

See also:


Topics: Storage, Hardware, Mobility

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  • "synchronizing data across devices"

    Totally agree.
    I use a lot of devices, and having my data and services available across each device is more important than trying to have one device to do everything.
    As you say, sometimes I just need different tools for the job.
    Google seems to be doing a fair job of this so far, even though there are a few glaring omissions/disparate strategies.
  • The flaw with your knife analogy

    Is that Swiss Army Knives are not undergoing the relentless technological improvements we see in all computing and high tech devices. The swiss Army knife you buy today is much like the one you bought 5 years ago, or, the one you will buy 5 years from now. Downloading an app cannot change what a Swiss Army knife does. Not so with computers/smartphones/tablets. One more thing, when you say the "poor people" you really mean the vast VAST majority of people on this planet. They all need/want/deserve some of the fruits of our modern technology, a single multipurpose device will fit that bill nicely.
    • Apps expand to fill the infrastructure available

      I agree that technology is improving: I do much more with my smartphone today than I did 10 years ago when I didn't have one. And new apps can improve the device. But apps extend our brains, not just our fingers and hands, and the mind is much more malleable and extensible than any limb. But our mind also extends our desires for novelty and entertainment, which is why our apps tend to exceed what our hardware can support over time.

      As for the very poor, there are vastly fewer of them than there were 20 years ago. Cell phones are revolutionizing the lives of billions in places where conventional infrastructure is impossible. I trust we can all agree that that is a Very Good Thing.

      R Harris
      • I agree

        That is the wonderful thing about technology. We can never get enough. However, what is deliverable is also a moving target. Unlike the Swiss Army knife, which never changes. If the Swiss Army knife followed the smartphones techologic improvement curve over soo many decades it would have morphed itself into a pocket sized surgical suite that would make any Terkkie proud. It did not for obvious reasons. Unlike the knife, which manipulates physical objects, the computer manipulates data. The cycles per watt growth trend is still exponentail and showing no signs of abating.

        It's just a matter of when the generalized deivces meet or exceed the majority of average wants. IMHO that has already happened, the market is just catching up now. That's why I get a kick out of "the great debate" articles. These articles always come out after a trend has been so firmly established that it's exicstence can no longer be denied.
      • But..

        at least 80% of the world population is still very poor, living on less than $10 per day.

        So 80% of the world (5.6 billion of them) cannot at all, or barely afford even a single smart phone.
  • Convergence never meant the extinction of purpose-built devices

    We've already seen many of the fruits of convergence. Even rich people tend NOT to buy MP3 players, even though it would mean improved sound quality and not draining their phone batteries. Families are no longer buying laptops for every member of their families, opting instead, for iPads and Android tablets. Convergence doesn't mean that traditional computing devices will go extinct, it means that smartphones will be good enough, with the proper peripherals, to do most of what the average person needs. It means that those that game and render video on their PCs will continue to do so, while most of us will use our phones for Minecraft, WoW, and Angry Birds. It means that, with a keyboard, my smartphone will be powerful enough to handle word processing, spreadsheets, and slide shows, in addition to streaming HD video to TVs, taking decent enough pictures, and providing a good enough music listening experience. There will always be some sort of MP3 player, dedicated camera, PDA, etc., they just won't be widely used.
    • Convergence will continue and synchronization will also remain important

      Clearly the phone/camera example is misrepresented in the article. Cameras are becoming a niche product as most people use their phones as camera. That is significant convergence. As you mention, it doesn't matter if some people still use dedicated cameras.

      On the other hand, there will always be physical (not technological) barriers to convergence. In the winter, a phablet might be great since you usually have a winter coat that can have a large pocket for it. For women who always carry bags, phablets might be good year round. But when I go out in the summer wearing shorts, I need a device that fits in a normal sized pocket. For this reason, I might own a 7" tablet and a 5" phone that would need syncing. Sadly, syncing needs a lot more refinement. To much syncing is still managed directly. Perhaps fold up or roll up screens can address this barrier.
  • Swiss army knives do not accurately represent computers.

    Yes the swiss army knife isn't a complete replacement for many specialized tools, but it isn't meant to be.

    I suppose you think hybrid SUVs are not good replacements for a families driving needs either despite them being the fasters growing segments of autos.

    Just look at what Smartphones have done to cameras, mp3 players, gps units, handheld gaming or any other single function device that people insist can't be replaced by a multipurpose device.

    Sorry, but in large part they have. Those "superior" single function devices are being pushed to limited specialized roles that many people simply just don't need anymore.

    The entire history of computers revolves around devices doing more, doing it faster, doing it smaller. In other words, convergence.
  • some coverge some sync

    Think about some devices: digital voice recorder, gps map/chart plotter, metronome, pitch tuner, stop watch, calculator, computer chess game, compass, glucose chart notepad, lightmeter, walkman. These are things which have completely converged to the mobile smartphone. There *ARE* high end, single purpose versions of them, but very very few people need the slight improvement the high end provides. Thus convergent.

    Sync.. documents, notes, development trees, photo albums, calendars, email(depends); these are not convergent, but pursue device independence, with the device determining means of access and modification.
  • convergence= smartphone with 2 screens and 2 keyboards

    Nokia did this with NOKIA E90 years ago. But they were far ahead of their times and the software was not there to compliment the hardware. AND it was far too heavy and bulky.
    Now picture a phone with a physical keyboard and a 3 inc high resolution screen-this for primary phone functions and basic computing. Flip the same device and you have a full functional physical keyboard with dedicated numeric buttons. And the top has a very high res 7 or 8 inch foldable (2 or 3 way) touch screen. All this packaged in a device that is a little bigger than iPhone and weighs less than 200 grams. This is convergence for a non technical person like me.
    I own computers, laptops and tablet AND smartphones. But still I would jump in for a convergent smartphone with a physical keyboard and a large high res screen
  • the myth of myths

    Convergence is not a myth, it's real.
    The myth of convergence is the myth.
  • Sure, because enterprises ENJOY spending more than they have to

    C'mon, Robin ... whenever a cheaper solution will work for a large percentage of a workforce, there are enterprises that will drive it into use. The only question in this case is which solution will cross the "viability threshold" to the point that it is accepted as a norm.

    A couple of years ago, my money would have been on MS ... but they appear to only want to converge the tablet and laptop/PC. That's a gutsy bet, that they will earn more in the long run by not immediately rushing into the phone-as-laptop/PC convergence greenfield, but instead waiting, then striking later. They risk being locked out for quite some time, especially given the strength of Android on this front.

    Google now gets my vote, ahead of Ubuntu - the "Android PC" movement, if it gets enough of a foothold to become credible to enterprise planners, could be a huge wave for Google to ride into a converged phone/laptop/PC. Ubuntu I consider a dark horse - watch for their enterprise deployment figures of standard desktops, and their Landscape mgmt solution, if that begins to take off, it could plow the ground for an Edge-like converged device.