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Friday, May 05, 2006

Device divergence always beats convergence.

Many years ago, "convergence" meant voice+data. Everyone assumed that you'd have one network, one device, unified messaging etc.

I used to speak at a lot of conferences saying that convergence wasn't that simple. What happens is that underlying enabling technologies converge - chips, screens, memory, software, network protocols and so on. Inevitably, someone jumps to the conclusion that just because you can put all this stuff in one device / network / application / service, people will want it.

These "visionaries" then completely ignore the fact that the new scale-economies from all this "enabler convergence" also means it suddenly becomes much cheaper and easier to make "divergent" single-use products as well. Most "all in one" jack-of-all-trade alternatives are usually "master of none".

I used to illustrate this point with a picture of a toaster and a washing machine. Both use a "converged" electricity supply. It's entirely possible to equip your kitchen with a single converged toaster-washer, but why would anybody want one? Even with personal items, convergence isn't important. We could have had combined watch+wallet years ago. Sunglasses+hairband. Trousers with built-in belts. All feasible examples of convergence, but completely useless.

The same is true with mobile devices. "The MP3 player is dead" "Standalone digital cameras on the decline". A single converged device for everything! Yeah right.

My prediction: in the future, the average person will both own, and carry, more devices that they have today. And they'll have ever more ways to be contacted - multiple phone #'s, IM accounts, email addresses etc. It's interesting that some operators are now openly pitching the idea of customers having two or more phones. While others give away free iPods with a new handset.

Sure, some functions will get absorbed into other devices. But it'll be one step forward, two steps back. Standalone devices will always exist, and always be desirable. Why should I wait until I renew my phone contract to get a better digital camera? Why would I want my upgrade cycles for my games machine & my mobile web browsing gizmo to be in sync?

I'm fed up with Nokia & other companies saying "we're the leading MP3 player supplier". Maybe, but what proportion of them get used? You're probably the leading infra-red device vendor too, but you don't make a big song & dance about that, do you?

Most telling was my visit to Korea last November. As far as I could see, everyone had a really cool and capable cellphone. And a really cool & capable MP3 player. And a really cool & capable digital camera. And fast broadband & cool & capable PC at home. In the most advanced mobile market in the world, there are shops everywhere that just sell standalone MP3 players - 100s of varieties of them.

So remember..... divergence is the future.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean

First, I greatly enjoy your blogsite, and often read it. And secondly, I am definitely one who believes in convergence, especially in the confines of our pocket and other devices we might carry. So with that bias in mind, let me argue on behalf of convergence around the mobile phone.

First, we have already incredible examples. You mentioned MP3 players and digital cameras. I can also add PDA functionality (smartphones vs stand-alone PDAs), messaging devices (note SMS is a messaging app - used by twice as many people at 1.3 billion vs total global users of e-mail of only 668 million users with 1.2 billion e-mail mailboxes).

But I'd like to give three specific reasons why. First, arguing by analogy. You mention the toaster and washing machine. Fine, there are many functions that are not actually commercially successful, even if someone had thought of them as a possible convergence.

But you leave out very many obvious examples of the opposite. In 1975 if you bought a portable cassette recorder and portable radio - they were separate devices. The RARE exception was the "radiorecorder" which combined both a cassette recorder and radio in the same portable device. Ten years later practically all cassette recorders were built into the boom boxes (which today tend not to have cassette players anymore and only have CD players)

In 1980 if you bought a video camera - it was a SEPARATE camera unit, with a portable video recorder unit - that was carried on a shoulder strap. Today all are of course converged camcorders.

In 1985 if you bought a PC and wanted a modem, that modem was always a stand-alone device. Todeay, with internet the biggest killer app, all PCs come with preconfigured modems, built-in. Convergence.

In 1990 if you wanted a CD player, it would be a stand-alone device you plugged into your HiFi set (or had as a portable device). Today any boom box or integrated home stereo set you buy, inlcudes the CD player.

In 1995 if you bought a laptop and wanted a CD player for it, that was a stand-alone unit. Today all laptops come with built-in CD (and DVD) players.

There are many more examples. But here are a few where once the absolute world standard was the separate devices, now the obvious expectation is the converged device.

Secondly there is the incredible inconvenience of the portable devices. We don't want to be burdened with more than one, if that can do "just enough" of what we need. The best digital camera is the one we have WITH US at any one time. It doesn't help to have the wonderful 6 Megapixel SLR Canon in the camera bag at home, when the picture happens in front of us. If the only camera we have is the 1 megapixel Nokia, then that is it.

Thirdly - subsidies. This is the "unfair advantage" that mobile has over all other handhelds. Our GPS receivers are not subsidised. Our iPods are not. Our Playstation Portables are not subsidised, nor are our digital cameras, nor our stand-alone PDAs. But our mobile phones (in most countries) are heavily subsidised. Often costing 50 dollars or less, when the equivalent stand-alone device costs several hundreds of dollars and is a uni-purpose device.

But fourthly - the killer - is the replacement cycle. The Semiconductor Industry Association just last week reported that the global replacement cycle for mobile phones is 18 months. No other device is replaced that rapidly.

Now I am not suggesting wedding photographers show up with Nokias. Or that DJ's replace iPods with Rokrs. But for the mass market, convergence is the preferred option, and the mobile phone will rule in this....

Tomi Ahonen :-)
4-time bestselling author

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Tomi

Thanks for this long & thought-provoking comment.

What is clear seems to be:

- Some things converge: PC+modem, Hifi+CD etc.
- Some things don't converge: PC+broadband modem, PC+printer, HiFi+TV, toaster/washer

It isn't immediately obvious what drives the "converge or not" decision. I suspect it's something to do with primary & secondary applications. It may make most sense to integrate a lesser-used thing into regularly-used thing.

The issue here is that phones & iPods are both "primary". iPod users may use it for an hour a day.

Cameras are a bit different - outside Japan, most people don't carry a camera day-to-day, so it makes sense to put a secondary function in a phone. But when you go on holiday, you probably have your camera around your neck & use it frequently - it's primary at that point, so you'll want a dedicated "proper one"

The subsidy issue is also a double-edged sword. Operators are increasingly only wanting to subdidise something that is "service oriented". But people want to use (some) paid services and (some) "owned non-service functions". No operator really wants to subsidise a lens of such high quality that their network can't handle the size of the uncompressed images.

Interestingly, I've met some carriers recently who want to construct service offers around iPods & PSPs precisely because they're not subsidised. It's much easier to build a business case around a device you don't have to bribe people to get it in the first place.

I've also seen plenty of offers like "buy this phone & get a free iPod".

There's a separate issue here that I'm seeing - an increasing proportion of people want multiple mobile phones, so they don't need all the features in all of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm doing my design project of communication device for cyclist . thanks for ur words. :)

Anonymous said...

The best audio systems still have seperate amplifiers, pre-amplifiers, cd-players, speakers, and subwoofers. Shows that convergence cannot match perfected separate units.

Unknown said...

For both MP3 and cameras integrated with mobilephones I feel the biggest hurdle to convergence is: 1 Battery on mobiles which are still to bad if you are using your phone as mp3 player and everything else as well as a phone. Ok for the occasional listening I use the phone but if you are doing it quite seldom you tend to not change the music on the phone and it gets old.
2 Sw on mobile phones which feels quite closed for development i.e. you can not get the mp3 player of your choice

So I quite agree with Dean for his analysis of divergence for a while longer for at least mobile phones..... but for many other things as well.

Raf M said...

And of course, we need to factor in consumer tastes and wants (sometimes voiced at annoying levels). Globalized? sure, but multinationals just the same will continue to address the needs of the region they are dealing with.
Just the same, Just the same... consumer tastes are a puzzle for the manufacturers too. I remember this Fortune news report about carriers saying that multimedia messages via cellphone are not really such a big hit in Europe; people dont necessarily snap pictures and send it all over.
Please do drop by my article on best seller mp3 players.

Mark John said...

"My prediction: in the future, the average person will both own, and carry, more devices that they have today."

Oops, hey?