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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Making Toast with a Toaster: The Problem of Convergence

My smartphone, a Blackberry Bold 9700, belongs to The Episcopal Academy and is controlled by our Blackberry Enterprise Server. It is my administrative leash. Every employee's email address, work phone, and home address is in there. The emergency phone numbers of all the parents and guardians of our 1,250 kids are listed there as well as my own personal contacts. It keeps my professional and personal schedule.

Now it has also become my GPS, my point-and-shoot camera and my password keeper. The greater part of my life-time music collection is stored on a 16 GB micro SD card the size of my pinky nail that I slid into my phone like a little plastic splinter. Pictures, songs and passwords all sync to my desktop.

I was inspired to try this experiment in convergence by this article in the "Personal Tech" section of The New York Times by Sam Grobart:

Grobart lists devices and services which most of us deal with in our lives and which we might do well to do without. He puts great hope in convergence to smart phones: GPS, music player, and camera should all be ditched, he suggests, and we should put our phones in their places. Surprisingly, he recommends keeping paper books.

Achieving convergence, howerver, is not easy. I got myself all tangled up. I complicated the transition by attempting to synchronize everything using bluetooth. Don't try it. It doesn't work. I ended up getting my paws into our blackberry enterprise server, changing all sorts of settings on both my blackberry, my desktop and the blackberry desktop software, only to end up with my phone calls coming out throught the speakers of my computer. No bluetooth please.

I had my Blackberry hooked up to the car audio system and was smugly listening to my music when, of course, my phone rang. Now what? Naturally, the music stops and I grab the device that has so abruptly metamorphosed back into a phone, just as Cinderella's chariot reduced itself to a pumpkin. So that was odd.

For the average user who isn't looking for a fight that he can blog about it, having a separate camera, gps and music player makes a lot of sense. They are all pretty cheap. You can keep the gps in the car; you can lend the camera to a friend without handing over your life; you don't have to spend hours making transitions and learning new ways of doing what you were already doing just fine. Divergence works too sometimes.

In the old days, technology came with instructions which people actually read. If you wanted to make toast, you bought a toaster and used it exactly how the instructions described its operation. But how can we write instructions for a device like a smart phone that can do so much? The poor instruction manual writers have no idea what you intend to do with it aside from talk on the phone. And even that is pretty hard to describe.

This is why students still carry textbooks and why Amazon still sells plenty of bound paper books. CDs have yielded almost completely to music downloads, but the bound paper book won't go away yet. It is the toaster of the information world: you take it off the shelf, open the cover and immediately start reading; whereas, just opening the cover of the new iPad 2 is an extravaganza. The bound paper book does not need AT&T or Verizon; no wireless configuration, no charger, no apps, no usernames and passwords, no upgrades, no obsolescence.

Convergence crops up in funny places. At home we most often watch movies streamed from Netflix through our Wii. The speakers on my TV (which is "3D" only in the sense that it is an old, bulky, not at all flat, CRT, or "Cathode Ray Tube" for you youngsters) lie dormant and all my sound passes through my music amplifier to my 30-year-old floor speakers. Lots of appliances, new and old, playing happily together.

My home music configuration began with a turntable. Then a tape player was added. The tape player went away and was replaced by a CD player. Then both the turntable and the CD player were replaced by a digital music streamer (Logitech Squeezebox.)  Some folks just use their DVD player, Wii or TIVO box to stream their music, but I decided to diverge instead of converge.

Convergence and divergence maintain a delicate balance. As technologies evolve, devices begin to compete across categories. Then new devices appear. But perhaps the most powerful driver behind these changes is desire. People keep changing what they want as they see what new technology can do.

Some people just want a nice, warm, buttery piece of toast in the morning with a cup of coffee. They don't need a microwave/toaster-oven that can defrost, brown, bake, roast, broil and toast. They want to put a slice of bread into the slot, press down the little black lever, and wait for the toast to pop up.

1 comment:

  1. My favorites are a a pencil and a piece of paper. An eraser is a handy peripheral.