How Many Devices?

The Real-Time column in WSJ discusses the issue:

Your PC has already replaced a number of devices (it’s a calculator, a typewriter and will set ’em up as many times as you want to play Solitaire) but get the right software, cards and cables and it’ll do most anything else. Telephone? Check. Radio? Sure. TV? Absolutely. Stereo? It can be done. It’ll even serve as a TiVo. Why, this one box can do it all!

But is “can” the same as “should?”

That’s where engineers and consumers can part ways. The guys in the white coats find the idea of a single box that does everything elegant, but consumers tend not to see the need for these jack-of-all-trades boxes. Possibly that’s because they know the other half of “jack-of-all-trades” is “master of none.” Sure, you can watch TV on your PC, and there are scenarios in which you’d want to do that. (Particularly if you want to capture video and/or stills.) But watching TV is a much-better experience on an actual TV than it is on a PC, even if you have moved your PC into the living room and aren’t camped out on an office chair. The same is true of schemes for using the TV to perform PC functions — assembling a playlist of MP3s or navigating through folders of digital photos can certainly be done with a remote, but it’s easier with a keyboard and mouse.

Then there’s the fact that replicating simple devices’ functions with a PC can be expensive. Why worry about installing a card and tweaking software drivers to make your PC act like a radio when $8 could get you a cheap radio that sits on your desk? No software drivers required, and if the mood hits, you can pick it up and take it to the beach. Back in the mid-90s, this desire to get PCs to mimic less-complex devices made us wonder if somebody out there was selling a $50 card that would let your computer behave like an abacus.

Sure, you’re better off with a real screwdriver, wire stripper or what-have-you, but you can’t fit them all in a pocket, which is where the Swiss army knife resided, at least before Sept. 11. The Swiss army knife is a natural for situations where space is more important than specialization — and that’s a model that works for cellphones or PDAs, too. A PDA or cellphone that can serve as a radio or MP3 player could be well worth it, even if the radio isn’t as quite as easy to use and you can’t hold quite as many MP3s — after all, those other devices won’t be in your bag contributing to a shoulder injury. (Folks we know who don’t mind the mildly dorky effect of holding a PDA up to their ear to receive phone calls have already gotten this message.)

But once you scale the “one box” proposition up to PC or TV size, the space savings offered by cramming multiple devices together aren’t worth it to most consumers, no matter the elegance or cool factor. At this scale, specialization rules — there’s a reason there’s no market for three-foot long Swiss army knives.

Atanu Dey has an opinion:

To my mind, a device may have various functionalities as long as there is an underlying commonality to the supporting infrastructure that the device incorporates within itself. For instance, if the various functions require digital storage, retrieval, and decoding, then aggregating these functions on the same device that has at its core a huge amount of storage is logical. So you could combine digital diary functions with MP3 functions because they both share the same underlying hardware. Now add a communications function and you have a handheld PDA which plays MP3. Camera and picture viewer also logically follow since a PDA has to have a screen and so they are shared.

But then, an all-in-one device has the obvious disadvantage that Brian pointed out in his comment, namely, you lose the device and you are up the proverbial creek without the paddle. Well, in that case, the obvious evolution of the device is to use the device for retrival and communications alone and keep the storage function outside the device, say, on centralized servers that are unlikely to get stolen. Ultimately, if you have broadband connectivity, then you really don’t need to drag your own harddrive all over the bloody place. This has the other advantage of lower power requirements.

Indeed, most of computing could be moved to centalized servers and all you need is a retrieval device that is not complicated at all. Think about it.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.