Comment: Gizmos diverging not merging

Imagine a time, sometime soon perhaps, when you can dispense with laptops, pagers, PalmPilots and cell phones. Instead of lugging and juggling four computing and communications devices, you'll tout just one gizmo -- an all-in-one gadget.

Imagine a time, sometime soon perhaps, when you can dispense with laptops, pagers, PalmPilots and cell phones. Instead of lugging and juggling four computing and communications devices, you'll tout just one gizmo -- an all-in-one gadget.

Wouldn't that make living the often sleepless, wired life easier? Well, some experts who assembled at an influential technology conference here have a one-word response to your reverie: Fahgeddaboutit!

Still, this cousin to the Bronx cheer represents a refreshing break from a high-tech tradition of filling gadgets up with complicated, useless or befuddling features that promise to do more than any single human could ever possibly want -- or really need. (Can anyone say, "Microsoft Word.") Instead, a group of panellists appearing before the Gartner Group Spring Symposium/ITxpo took the time to disabuse the assembled audience of mostly IS managers of a convergence among personal computing devices.

In the words of one panellist, Senior VP Randy Battat of Motorola Inc., expect a coming "divergence" of devices -- a variety of computing and communications gadgets for specialised purposes or suited to your own particular needs. And the prognosticators from Gartner, the IT research and advisory firm sponsoring the gathering, think that's the way it'll go as well. "Is the world going to gravitate to a single device that does everything for everybody?" asked Tom Austin, the GartnerGroup analyst who follows "electronic workplace technologies. "No. We see a diversity of devices working in a confederation with each other, rather than in a master-slave relationship" where they are beholden to a single computing platform, he said.

Don't hold your breath for this confederation to form. Computing and communications continues to represent a cacophony as noisy and confusing as the hold must have been on Noah's Ark. For some time to come, you'll be using your PalmPilot to look up a number to make a call on your cell phone in response to page. It's still notable that the Gartner panel showed it is becoming ever more savvy about what users really need and want and that, like the Bauhaus school of architecture, sometimes less is really more.

"People can't stand complexity in their life," said Handspring Inc. chairman Jeff Hawkins, who knows a thing or two about the virtues of simplicity. Hawkins is the inventor of the operating system at the heart of 3Com's wildly popular PalmPilot.

By way of example, Motorola's Battat talked about a range of cellular telephones. On one end there's the "programmable phone" -- a computer and communications device that would allow your local pizza shop to handle your cheese and pepperoni with as much sophistication as Fedex handles your overnight letter.

On the other is the what Battat describes as the intelligent phone, which does nothing more than let you synchronise your address book with the one on your PC. Microsoft Corp.'s Jonathan Roberts, who oversees development of Windows CE, says that kind of customisation and diversity is already occurring around the company's version of a "lite" operating system. It's divided, he said, into 120 different components. Device-makers are using what they need to give computing intelligence to everything from a set-top TV computer for sale in China to a video game for the Sega Saturn.

And in another heartening acknowledgement device makers are getting it, Handspring's Hawkins reminded his fellow panellists of the teenage girl inside all of us: "Don't forget," he said. "People also want style."