Whatever you do for a living, choosing the right tool for the job can often mean the difference between success and failure. It matters as much for surgeons and rocket scientists as it does for carpenters and stonemasons.
But in an age where even the most basic tools need a differentiated feature set to stand out from the crowd and attract consumers’ attention, making the all-too-critical choice is becoming more difficult. Formerly simple solutions are morphing into agglomerations of often disparate capability as vendors pile on the features in an ongoing effort to remain competitive. Against this chaotic backdrop, stand-alone tools may not be with us for too much longer.
- Global sales of basic cell phone handsets that are primarily used for voice calls and little else — now known as “feature phones” — are falling as smart phones grow in popularity. In the U.K., research by O2 indicates 70 percent of small businesses are buying converged devices to replace existing handsets.
- The typical small office or home printer has evolved into an all-in-one device that can also scan, copy and fax. Our local big-box electronics retailer stopped selling low-end inkjet printers earlier this year.
- Pocket devices of all types — including iPods and portable game systems like Nintendo’s DSi — are sprouting integrated cameras or videocams.
- It’s becoming difficult to find any device that does not also incorporate wireless capability. The Wi-Fi Alliance and In-Stat WiFi report 2008 sales of Wi-Fi chipsets jumped 26 percent in 2008 — to 387 million — over 2007 figures, largely due to exploding demand for both entertainment and productivity capabilities on everything from netbooks to smart phones.
But just because it’s stuffed with goodness doesn’t mean everyone appreciates it. Between built-in accelerometers, compasses and GPS capabilities, there’s a distinct possibility that some features may lie unused for the life of the device because they’re either too disconnected from the originally intended use or they’re buried under layers of technology that even the most savvy user would have difficulty navigating.
Complex as it is, the current state of the converged device landscape is radically different from its humble beginnings about a decade ago. Back then, the first wave of multiple-featured offerings hit the market to a resounding yawn. They were typically PDAs wedded to cell phones. And as novel as it was back then to have a phone that could also manage your calendar and hold all your contacts, sloppy execution and luxury-level pricing kept them from sticking around for very long.
In many cases, vendors simply slapped a bunch of features onto a common device without paying any attention to the subtle details of integration that can make or break a given design. For example, an incoming call on a converged device would go straight to voice mail — or worse, cause the entire thing to crash — if the user happened to be looking up an appointment at the wrong moment. And if they’re not outright failing, quality of service is often lagging. Integrated cameras on many mobile handsets, for example, take muddy, low-resolution pictures, while battery life on many other devices is woefully short due to the power drain caused by so many overlapping features.
More recent offerings are showing much more promise, as vendors respond to consumer demands for more than just a laundry list of features. Tight, thoughtful integration is showing up in many forms, including the ability of Palm webOS-powered devices like the Pre and Pixi smart phones to pull contact information from multiple sources, including Facebook, into a common interface. Likewise, Apple’s iPod and iPhone juggernaut continues to lead the industry — with an almost unheard of 74 percent market share for media players alone — largely based on a relatively simple user experience that seamlessly incorporates hardware, software and online distribution.
Any given Apple product will virtually always lose a feature-for-price comparison. Until recently, the company’s media players lacked radios or voice recorders. The company steadfastly refuses to include media card expansion slots in its pocketable devices — something no competitor would dare leave out — and its four-figure laptops can look like luxurious extravagances in an age of $300 netbooks and $500 bare-bones laptops. But as recession-weary consumers realize features don’t add value unless they map to specific needs and are used often enough to justify their inclusion, they’re appreciating the greater value of a tighter, better integrated feature set.
Value, not price, increasingly drives the purchase agenda for businesses and consumers alike. That value proposition also extends to users’ time, and vendors that make use of it through a better integrated feature set stand to benefit.
In many ways, there will always be a certain market for dedicated tools. A studio photographer won’t pitch a high-end DSLR in favor of a BlackBerry’s camera. But for mainstream use, it’s clear that well-designed multifunction devices represent a good enough future for the majority of uses and users.
Carmi Levy is a technology journalist and analyst with experience launching help desks and managing projects for major financial services institutions. He offers consulting advice on enterprise infrastructure, mobility and emerging social media. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.