Smartphones do too much: convergence is giving way to divergence

For years, the holy grail of personal tech has been convergence. Now that we essentially have a version of that in the form of smartphones – which allow fairly sophisticated computing for most daily needs, from accomplishing work to playing music – ironically many of us are discovering the need to extract some of those functions and instead carry multiple devices, such as a smartphone, a tablet, and a smartwatch all at once.
I call this trend divergence; let’s look at a few factors that are driving it.

Increasing complexity

Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of components in integrated circuit chips doubles every 18 months, made it possible to drive more power from a small footprint of electronics. With Moore’s Law on their side and users demanding to carry more with less, entrepreneurs seized the opportunity, and began fitting more functions into a single device, thus paving the way to convergence.
However, as newer functions get bundled into a single device, the interface often (but certainly not always) becomes more complex. Therefore a need arises to extract certain functions in a separate device in a form factor that makes more sense for that function.
As an example, Google Glass is arguably a better form factor to capture a video while taking a roller coaster ride than trying to hold onto your phablet. And a Pebble Watch provides a simpler and easier interface to view and control music while on the go. Ironically, Moore’s Law is also playing a big role in divergence of devices: The ability to fit more power in limited space is crucial for these new form factors to work.

Horizontal solutions

Clayton Christensen explains in the Innovator’s Solution that when interfaces between components aren’t well-defined, vertically integrated products tend to do very well. For instance, the Mac did very well in the early years of personal computing in part because of the tight integration between its hardware and operating system.
Similarly, when Apple introduced the iPhone six years ago, the smartphone industry was still in a relatively early phase. Apple was able to take advantage of a lack of well-defined interfaces by joining together computing, telephony, and music in a vertically integrated device. It would have been extremely hard for a small startup to come up with a converged device like an iPhone at that time: Apple not only had expertise in both software and hardware, it also benefited strongly from its partnerships (music labels, movie studios, app developers large and small) all along the value chain.
Yet, coming on six years from when the first iPhone launched, I believe that the industry has now entered a stage where the tight coupling of mobile hardware and software, while beneficial, is not the only winning strategy. APIs and interfaces such as WiFi, Bluetooth and location platforms are well established, consistent and understood. Therefore smaller independent players such as Fitbit (disclosure: see below) and its many competitors, along with the many smart watches, credit card readers, security beacons coming out every day, can succeed by leveraging these popular interfaces and platforms to deliver new applications that function better on their own.
There’s no doubt that vertically integrated players like Apple will still have some advantages – Apple’s rumored iWatch for one would presumably provide native iOS support to do many things that something like the Pebble Watch cannot do (for example, selectively turn on app notifications; similarly it can only preview emails from Gmail on an Android device).
But thanks to these well-established platforms, we will have no shortage of newer companies venturing into the digital devices arena.

Master of one

Now that smartphones and tablets offer several functions quite satisfactorily, there is an emerging trend to solve very specific problems very well. As Nokia’s Marko Ahtisaari said in an interview with Slashgear, “there’ll be room for more and more dedicated devices that do a few things really well again.” Already Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite remains  the device of choice for those who are hardcore e-book readers, especially those who read in sunlight. Users could easily opt to read the same Kindle book on their smartphone or tablet but choose the device that does this one task best.
And I will not be shocked if specialized music players that only stream music from popular services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Rdio and the like start appearing in the market. Of course, feasibility of such devices will also require newer business models that can enable affordable data plans.
While convergence will continue to move forward in certain areas – such as in the home entertainment space, where a single TV will compress several functions offered by separate set-top boxes into one device – newer form factors, horizontal solutions, specialization, and above all human ingenuity will ensure that we never run out of the need to carry multiple devices. At least not until advancements in materials science and technology enable a single device to take multiple forms.
Disclosure: Fitbit is backed by True, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.
Saad Fazil writes about emerging trends in the high-tech industry, especially in the areas of social, location and mobile. He writes at itval.e. Follow him on Twitter @ sfrocks.
Have an idea for a post you’d like to contribute to GigaOm? Click here for our guidelines and contact info.