On my drive home from work Friday night, I realized I had finally reached a point of personal technology nirvana I had been chasing for over 10 years. I finally had in my possession a single gadget that addressed the vast majority of my day-to-day personal technology needs, in a pocket-sized package. It’s no big surprise that the single gadget is my smartphone, what I find surprising (and exasperating) is how long it took to get here and how long it took to take that last step across the finish line.
In the world of personal computer technology you come across the term “convergence” all the time. In a nutshell, it’s the idea of combining one or more solutions into a single package whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The goal is to take two great tastes and make them taste better together.
You see it happening all the time in the living room – stereo and media gear keep folding into each other, reducing the number of items in your stereo cabinet. (Seriously, there’s a term that’s not going to be around much longer – how many people are going to have a stereo cabinet for only 1 device, or no device?)
For personal technology I’m defining Convergence as the combination of functions and reduction in the number of portable handheld electronic gadgets one carries around with them on a daily basis. (Basically, I want to carry less crap around with me!) Over the years, if you mugged me you’d have your pick of the following items spilling out of me like a big nerd Piñata:
- Wallet (with my ID, money, photos, various bank and membership cards)
- Keys (house, car, office, mailbox)
- Book / Kindle
- Notepad & pen
- Mini flashlight
- MP3 player
- PDA (Personal Digital Assistant, I probably wouldn’t give Public Displays of Affection to a mugger)
- GPS device (both for maps and navigation)
- Portable game device
- Various chargers, adapter cables, etc. for all these $&%!@ gadgets
Over time, as advances in technology rapidly picked up steam I was able to ditch certain specific-function devices that were replaced by “good enough” functionality in my phone. Some were obvious candidates for deletion:
- Calculator – one of the first to go. My phone can run circles around all but the fanciest offerings from HP.
- PDA – any current phone has calendar, email and address book integration & server synchronization. Whether you’re on Exchange server or live in a Google world, you’re covered.
- GPS – replaced by Google Maps + Navigation. I still have my Garmin 60CSx, but it’s only needed for times when I’m without cell coverage (backcountry hiking trips, etc.)
- Game Device – modern phones are capable of playing amazing and fun games, and the reasons for carrying a separate standalone portable game gadget are dwindling by the day. The Nintendo Game Boy era is over, and I cannot believe that there are still major game platform companies that don’t get this. The mob of Angry Birds has knocked over more than pig fortresses; they’re toppling handheld game empires.
- Camera – So long as you’re not trying to be a “real” photographer, you can make do just fine with the camera on your cellphone. Sure the shutter speed and flash are still iffy, but for snapshots they’re perfect. Sync those photos online via DropBox and you’ll never miss that handheld camera you used to swear by.
So now I’m carrying WAY fewer gadgets with me. Sweet! And along the way a few other things got converged I didn’t expect:
- Notepad & pen – replaced by EverNote
- Mini flashlight – are you kidding me?
- Books – good riddance; those things were heavy!
Wow, not bad! So now I’m down to just carrying this:
Now we’re getting there!!! Only 1 more “easy” combination + elimination to make… The final holdout gadget?
- MP3 player
Why am I still carrying 2 computers in my pocket? Shouldn’t it be pretty easy to make your phone your primary music player? After all, phones have been able to play MP3 music for a long time now. But the biggest thing a phone lacks in comparison to dedicated MP3 players is discoverability and capacity. I have a fairly large music collection, and while I could winnow it down to a paltry 2-3 GB worth of favorite tunes, I simply don’t want to. I built a big music collection over time because I like a wide variety of music and like bobbing around in that vast sea of options. If I have music listening moments of “oh cool, that reminds me of another song” and I’m unable to find and hear that song in less than 30 seconds, I’m not satisfied. I’m spoiled because I can do that with any modern MP3 player that has 20GB or more worth of storage space and/or an online connection to a service like iTunes, Amazon, or (in my case) the Zune Marketplace. I don’t just want to carry my favorite 20 songs, I want to carry 20,000 songs. Oh, and I also want to be able to quickly find and purchase new music AND I don’t want to be hobbled with DRM nonsense while I do it. My phone can’t do that. At least, it hasn’t been able to until now.
Eliminating my standalone music player has been the final hurdle in my quest for gadget convergence. And in comparison to the previous hurdles this one has taken a maddeningly long time to clear. It’s a complex challenge, and the biggest obstacles aren’t necessarily technological in nature. Plenty of companies have been working on this problem for years, but the music industry has not “embraced change”. Instead of accepting the new reality of selling music online, it has been struggling as it collides with these new ways of doing business. And when IP lawyers get backed into corners they tend to fight harder vs. dying more quickly. To get true music + phone convergence you need an army of software + hardware engineers, and a phalanx of lawyers.
In my mind there are basically 4 players in the personal computing space who have the potential to really bring it all together with music + online access + phone-based portability. Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon. Sony could’ve been a major player in this space also with their music hardware expertise and access to music artists, but for various reasons they’ve faded from an era of Walkman supremacy into becoming also-rans.
Sony owned the personal music player market back when the video at the top of this post was created (Walkmans, chocolate, and peanut butter!) Apple and Microsoft were combatants in the most recent portable music battle, and we all know how that turned out. Phones have been a very competitive space between Apple and Google, with Microsoft struggling to keep up. Combining phones and music players is a tough war to win, and the next battle in that war is going to take place in the cloud.
In the past few weeks there’s been a big tipping point – Amazon and Google both took the wraps off their online cloud music offerings, and Apple announced their upcoming iCloud music release. Holy crap I am a happy camper! (Although I’m personally saddened that this wave of tech goodness didn’t come from Microsoft).
- Amazon cloud player: http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=2658409011
- Google Music: http://music.google.com
- Apple iCloud: http://www.apple.com/icloud/
I have a Google Android phone, so I was able to try out both Amazon and Google’s offerings. So far Amazon’s Cloud Music Player is by far the best and most complete solution because not only can I upload and stream my current collection, I’m able to find and buy new music as well (with no DRM) via Amazon’s music store. Google has excellent storage and download capability, but no music store. Apple is the 800lb gorilla in the room with iTunes and iCloud – I do think that when Apple comes to market, it will likely be the most polished and elegant solution. (That may be the final thing that tips me towards buying an iPhone, but for now I’m very happy with what I can do on the Android platform.)
So to bring this nerdgasm to a close – this all finally came to a head for me on my commute home this last Friday evening. I had my phone, docked wirelessly with my car stereo (via Bluetooth) and doing the following:
- streaming a mix of songs through my car stereo over the air (3G data connection) from my Amazon Cloud Player collection
- showing me realtime traffic on a GPS-active map (Google maps)
- keeping my mail and calendar updated / synchronized in the background (both work and personal email accounts)
all while carrying my most recent photos, books, a few cool games, and all my various notes.
I finally have all my gadgetry smooshed into a single small device. I only have 1 gadget on my person. My phone is my one true god, and Nirvana has been achieved!
The final convergence challenge: combine the keys, wallet and phone into 1 device. Then shrink that into a RFID chip, and fire it into my temple. We already do this for our pets, why not?
I’m not joking – this is the next step. Why do we still use metal keys, paper money, and little pieces of plastic that identify us or let us buy / do things? We should all just have chips in our heads that we activate with a nod of the head + a specific thought pattern as a passcode. Converge it all into my skull, post haste!
Someone get cracking on this, just don’t ask me to be part of the Beta. 🙂