One Device or Many?
By Kevin Werbach, Thu Feb 08 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Conventional wisdom holds that wireless handsets and mobile computing devices designed for specific functions will gradually merge. Don?t bet on it.

The idea of convergence exerts a powerful influence. In hardware, software and networking, differences between product categories always seem to melt away. After all, we’re in a digital world. A bit is a bit is a bit. Whether that bit encodes voice communication or spreadsheet data, video streams or address-book entries, it looks the same to a computer and a digital network.

It's true converging multiple devices into one provides some value, especially in the mobile world. Having six peripherals strung to your desktop computer may be an inconvenience, but imagine trying to carry six different devices around in your pocket or purse. Beyond the difficulty and cost of such hardware redundancy, multiple devices means data will have to be replicated and synchronized, or it will not be available when you need it on the device you happen to be using. You can look up a phone number on your personal digital assistant (PDA) today, but if you want to make a call you have to manually type it into your mobile phone – a cumbersome process.

The first wireless devices, mobile phones and pagers were built for specific purposes. With the relentless progression of Moore’s Law, though, all computing devices continually become more powerful at the same price point, or smaller and cheaper at the same level of functionality. Schedulers such as the Casio BOSS handled limited computing functions, but they were not programmable or expandable, and suffered from limited input and output mechanisms.

Then along came the Palm and Psion devices, which for the first time made handheld computing viable for the mass market. Palm later added wireless data connectivity with the Palm VII, while Research in Motion (RIM) turned the pager into a two-way wireless email device with its Blackberry. The announcement of devices that combine voice telephone with computing functions, including Nokia’s Communicator, Ericsson’s R380, Kyocera’s pdQ Smartphone and the Handspring VisorPhone, seem poised to usher in an era of all-in-one mobile hardware.

Why all-in-one is not the one for all

The trouble is... people want different things. The most popular uses of wireless devices fall into four categories: communication, productivity, entertainment and information access. Each has its own requirements.

Communication, whether voice or data, requires a wireless connection, which draws significant power and computing resources. It also requires high-speed input, which means either speech or a large keyboard. Productivity applications, such as the address book and calendar features the Palm became known for, require a sophisticated operating system and display on the device, as well as a means of synchronizing data with personal computers. Entertainment generally means either a high-resolution color screen or the capability to record and play high-fidelity audio. And information access, the great strength of the Web, needs everything from a wireless connection to a local browser to back-end gateways able to translate information for viewing on handheld devices.

All the components involved are getting cheaper, faster and less power-demanding. But all have a long way to go.

There is almost always some tradeoff between doing things well and doing many things, especially in an environment acutely sensitive to processing, memory, weight and power consumption needs. Moreover, devices that try to do everything clash with users' expectations that tools will fit into a particular functional framework or life context.

Context-sensitivity, whether tied to location or personal preferences, is one of the prime elements of mobile computing (see Kevin Werbach is the Editor of Release 1.0, an influential monthly report that covers the converging worlds of technology, communications and the Internet. He also co-organizes the annual PC Forum and High Tech Forum conferences for technology industry executives.

Kevin is known worldwide as a leading thinker on topics such as the future of e-business, network architecture, convergence and technology policy. An active participant in online communities for over fifteen years, he is particularly interested in the complex ways that new technologies intersect with markets and society.