The tech industry goes in many different waves. One of these dichotomies is the centralisation of computing services vs. putting more power at the edge. But while the cloud aspect of that generates a lot of noise, the more interesting pendulum is known as “convergence” – instead of carrying round a lot of different devices you’d carry one that was good at everything. I’m going to suggest we’ve reached temporary peak convergence, and now you’re going to see the good stuff in more specialised devices again.
In a modern smartphone there are web browsing, navigation, and video capture capabilities that if purchased separately would set you back some serious cash, but also the serious inconvenience of dragging around different devices. As the saying goes, the best camera you have is the one you have with you. But, no serious photographer you know relies on his smartphone. One of the hit products of recent years is the GoPro (confidentially filing their paperwork for IPO with the SEC this last week) which is winning as a kind of camera for people that need something a bit tougher than normal. There’s also the DSLR market, largely selling to those that need bigger sensors and a larger variety of lenses than is physically possibly to mount in a smartphone. Nokia’s Lumia 1020 with its ridiculous 41MP sensor, primarily to reduce low light noise, pushes some interesting ideas here, but it hasn’t really found much of a market, and some limits still remain.
Last year’s two best devices were the Chromecast and the updated Kindle Paperwhite. Both of these are really very specialized, reasonably priced for what they do, and they do it well. They’re also both kind of useless unless you have some sort of other co-ordinating device (a PC or smartphone) from which to select the content you wish to consume. Though, the Kindle could theoretically be used entirely as is assuming you wish to spend loads on Amazon. We can also thrown in the whole “Internet of Things” caboodle, with products such as Philips Hue or the Nest. Like the Kindle, the Nest could conceivably be used standalone but you would be missing a lot of the supposed benefits.
As covered in the article last week the interoperability of devices from different vendors remains a problem, but the other big trend, in common with the cameras and the Chromecast, is that the user interfaces for these things are largely on that co-ordinating smart device. This has numerous advantages, not least being your smart device probably has a connection to the internet to piggyback on, enabling faster take-photo-of-dinner-to-facebook workflows, but also amortizing the cost of the substantial graphics power required to do modern user interfaces across all the devices.
It would be tempting to think that this means your smart device being able to access everything and all vendors being compelled to connect with it will make integration headaches go away as your device can do all the co-ordination, but it won’t, largely as you don’t want to have to leave your smartphone at home all day so your thermostat communicate with the heating subsystems or the light switches connect to the lights. Unfortunately, a solution based on connecting these things to the cloud is no solution at all, since we don’t all live in the 4G everywhere reality (even underground) that those in Seoul get to experience. The Chromecast does push a vision of the world which assumes perfect networking, but that is about the only real flaw of the device.
Incidentally, the Chromecast, if you haven’t yet used one, is a first from Google: an almost finished self-contained product that does what it says with a surprisingly low amount of fuss. Initial setup could still be smoother, but this is an ongoing problem for almost all devices that do not have direct user interaction. NFC (“Near Field Communication”, the technology used to enable payment by tapping your credit card on a device at the cash register, and similar in some respects to how the Opus cards work) may actually find a killer niche here, but I suspect Google dismissed such an idea for Chromecast on the basis that NFC capability in smartphones is far from ubiquitous, and they were going for the biggest audience possible. The current Google Glass uses a slightly convoluted setup where the phone displays a QR code encoding the WiFi credentials and the camera on the Glass is used to take a picture of the phone screen in order to establish communication, but this is better than the Chromecast experience.
The vision of carrying a small set of devices tuned to individual preferences from a range of different companies all working together as if they’re one coherent system does today look like a somewhat utopian notion, but rather than being an agent of convergence the smartphone is starting to look like the central node in a loose network of more specialised entities. This will certainly make life complicated for technologists for the coming years, but it will also enable an explosion of niche devices to become economically viable.
Nigel Birkenshaw runs Atomirex Technologies.