At one time things were pretty straightforward; entertainment centred on a TV, computing around a PC, communication around a phone. Now, convergence has blurred so many lines; it should be no surprise that everything looks like a cloud.
The biggest changes have been in IT. Not long ago, the desktop computer was at the centre of IT. Everything else was a peripheral; not only the obvious things like printers and scanners, but even mobile devices such as handheld PDAs, e.g. PalmPilots were described as 'companions'.
As the number of computing devices and their form factors has multiplied, every so often it is suggested there might be a single unifying device that does everything. This has a lot of appeal, just like owning a Swiss Army knife, but equally, how many Swiss Army knife owners carry them about their person every day?
The all-embracing single device that does everything never quite seems to arrive, as it is too much of a compromise. So most people end up carrying a subset of a collection of devices or personal device ecosystem—laptop, camera, phone, tablet etc.—the mix of which is determined by needs of the day and the constraints or capabilities of wardrobe and associated 'baggage'. This is important as, although many people like to think they are now very technology aware, most are not only fashion or fad conscious, but also hate lugging around too much stuff.
Paring down to the essentials indicates what is most important—often a single device is the one that no one can do without and the others are regarded as peripheral.
So where now is the centre of techno-attention? It is rarely the desktop, and for many it is the mobile phone, combined with a drift away from the previous favourite desktop replacement on the move, the laptop, towards the tablet.
This is not without its challenges; for many the typewriter keyboard is a hard habit to kick, but smaller and lighter means more portable and touch screens have created for many a more natural way of interaction. The keyboard, though, is still apparently vital for 'real content creation', but generally large and clunky, yet how many will admit to learning how to use one properly through completing courses such as touch typing rather than relying on the two-fingered jab?
Once the need for a keyboard has been ignored, screen size becomes the next physical factor to align around. But what is the right size for a screen? Apple laboured long and hard and Steve Jobs had been adamant that there was a 'Goldilocks' screen size (just right). Despite this thought, the industry seems to disagree and screen sizes for all sorts of devices have expanded into a huge multiplicity of options—most of them too big to hold next to an ear.
So, is the tablet then the new centre of attention?
Possibly, for some, and, given how they are so casually used in formal as well as informal and relaxed circumstances, the tablet does now seem to have a very high degree of importance, but the centre? No, the majority of tablets still have Wi-Fi only mobile connectivity as they are often used flexibly but within a 'place', and are then paired with another device for connectivity on the move—a mobile phone—making that still the prime device.
Two other areas have started to become much smarter and their effect on the centre of gravity of attention is intriguing, but not decisive. The more established is smart TVs, which are starting to deliver on the some of the promises of WebTV and the convergence of PCs and TVs, much trialed and hyped in the early days of the internet in the 1990s.
However, these devices have fundamental flaws. Sometimes it is poor execution of software by companies who are (let’s face it) unused to the rapid rate of revision of software. Somehow, upgrading a TV just to get the latest version of some player app, which isn’t supported on the current box, isn't going to be a priority for most people.
The other flaw is in the usage model where it is no longer clear that the TV is the centre of digital attention even when people are sat around possibly watching it. The behaviours known as 'meshing' and 'stacking' describe how may behave. Some will 'mesh', in that the other devices in their hands—mobile phone, tablet etc.—work in conjunction with the broadcast content, e.g. voting on reality TV programmes or tweeting along to political knockabouts. However, according to Ofcom, more will 'stack' their digital activities, in that they are doing other things with those devices that are unrelated to the broadcast TV content. The TV looks destined to be a peripheral, smart or not.
The next topic of growing interest is wearable technology and a particular area of wearable real estate, the wrist. Several companies are throwing a lot of effort into this space for essentially a companion device to a mobile phone, but is this misplaced?
It depends on the function of the wrist device, which seems to fall into two camps; one is the smart watch—a remote control or ancillary screen for the mobile phone; the other is more of a data capture device often for health and fitness. These devices tend to be wristbands rather than watches, although some have rudimentary displays. Their purpose is to gather data and feed it, typically via a mobile phone or when docked via a fixed device, to the cloud. This might mean they are not ‘peripherals’, but neither do they offer full functional mobile communications for the wearer.
In the other case, the smart watch offers a lot of the functionality previously delivered by the Bluetooth headset, but shedding the now less desirable appearance. To this it adds the ‘Dick Tracey’ geek appeal of a digital watch, but essentially is still a subservient peripheral to the prime communications device, the mobile phone.
These devices beg the question ‘why would I use one if it is easy to get out the phone that I’m already carrying?’ Here might lie the answer for certain device ecosystems where the phones are becoming so large they are usurping tablets—the ‘phablet’ fanciers—and so remain stowed away with urgent functionality accessed from the wrist. This is the model that is being tried by several of the Android device makers such as Samsung, but not yet by Apple.
Perhaps a better approach might be to shrink the cellular ‘phone’ to a wristband and carry a small or large display that can connect to it depending on circumstances, or simply wear the display as a head up image on glasses? Google’s first iteration of Glass might be geeky and pose some sartorial challenges today, but once competition and the fashion industry takes over, who knows?
This article first appeared on computerweekly.com