Convergence conundrum

Devices that include multiple functions are becoming more and more common and Senior Technical Editor Jason Saundalkar examines the pros and the cons…

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By  Jason Saundalkar Published  October 7, 2008

Thanks to last month’s encounter with Nokia’s N96 mobile phone (read the review in the November 2008 issue of Windows), I’ve been thinking a lot about converged devices. Convergence can mean a number of different things but in the consumer electronics and computer world, convergence signifies the merging of multiple technologies and features into a single device.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of converged products such as Nokia’s N96, Apple’s iPhone and even the latest Microsoft and Sony console releases. All of these products offer one primary function accompanied by numerous other features and technologies.

In the case of the N96 and iPhone, these are communication devices and with regards to the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360, those are designed to run games. Beyond these primary functions, all of the aforementioned devices include extra abilities. The PS3 and Xbox 360 can play videos and music, display photos and even connect to the internet. The iPhone and N96 on the other hand include digital cameras, music and video playback and handy GPS service as well. The latter even includes 3G data services for mobile internet access and, should your local broadcast company support DVB-H signals, you can even watch digital TV on the go.

Because these products include all these features, you can justifiably opt for one of these rather than buying a separate piece of kit for each function. In the past, if you wanted to click snaps, listen to music or have GPS help you find your way, you’d have to invest in a separate digital camera, MP3 player and dedicated GPS device. So, for converged devices then, one of the biggest positives is that they offer tons of convenience - you need only one of these devices to serve multiple needs.

Moreover, all the functions are accessible from a single interface, so usability should be enhanced further still since the user doesn’t have to become acquainted with several different front-end interfaces (as is the case when using different devices).

Another benefit converged devices offer is reduced cost for the consumer. Compared with buying a standalone DVD player, a PC or laptop to surf the internet and view photos, Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 can do all this and more while costing less than you’d spend on the sum total of the individual devices.

A major counterpoint for converged devices rears its head when the device in question goes bad. This is a catastrophe because you’ll need to return the device to the manufacturer to get it fixed (if it’s still under warranty). This of course means you lose access to all the functionality it offered. So, if your phone offers music playback, GPS and internet capabilities, you’ll lose all of this, all at once. If you had individual devices, then you’d only lose access to the one function that the device provided.

Another issue with converged products today is that they lack the depth of features offered by individual devices. So while your digital camera equipped phone might be able to take decent pictures in the right lighting, it will struggle to keep up with even a basic point-and-shoot camera in difficult conditions. The point-and-shoot will likely have a greater breath of manual mode options for example, so even in tricky lighting conditions, you’d be able to take decent shots simply because you have more control. (That’s assuming you know what you’re doing.)

In the end, a converged device will only really be able to satisfy your expectations if you temper them in the first place. It is important to remember that these devices are bred to offer a breath of functionality and convenience over their primary function; they aren’t designed to compete feature-to-feature with a standalone product. So, if you buy a mobile phone with MP3 and camera functionality, don’t expect it to offer every feature and function that a standalone MP3 player and digital camera offer. In the future I’m quite sure that converged devices will eventually become proper replacements for standalone devices but we’re not quite there yet.

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