The Right Tool For The Job

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The mobile phone is today’s PC, but not necessarily in the way you think. Fifteen years ago, the PC was the central hub in one’s interactions with the wider world. This was largely because of the state of miniaturization; our electronics simply weren’t small or efficient enough to make mobile phones and laptops nearly as powerful as desktops.

So we made do with the PC — it was a jack of most trades, and getting more powerful all the time. Then, cue the proliferation of smaller devices like iPods, feature phones, and pocket GPS units that were fairly powerful and useful. The PC declined in the universality of its application, and while it remains popular to this day (however one defines it), its usefulness has been honed to a finer point — stationary productivity, gaming, storage, and so on.

Imagine, if you will, a graph with power (roughly speaking, including efficiency and variety of capabilities as well as raw horsepower) on the X axis and intended use cases on the Y. The PC usually ended up in the top right corner, a sort of computing Swiss Army knife that lacked only portability. On the bottom left you have things like calculators. The bottom right, corresponding to high power and few intended use cases, was empty until those new devices took up residence there, using advanced technology to accomplish more narrowly-defined tasks — playing music, finding one’s location, checking email, etc. Keep this graph in mind.

Fast forward to the present. Smartphones are enjoying their salad days at the moment, as PCs were in the late 90s. We have reached a pleasant plateau hardware-wise (barring any major breakthroughs), and divergence in software is now the word.

Smorgasbord

Samsung’s recent press conference, although excruciating in every other respect, was fun for me because of the sheer amount of features being discussed. It reminded me of that trick where a clown pulls scarves or the like from his mouth, and they just keep coming out (it was about as funny, too).

I don’t blame them for throwing the kitchen sink at us, even if the feature list ends up reading like a Skymall catalogue. They love technology! They love what it can do! We can all be positive about that. And believe it or not, there are millions of people who love gadgets like this. My dad, for instance, would flip over the two-way video thing. And built-in automatic spoken translation? It’s really quite impressive!

But here’s what interested me about it. Remember that graph from earlier? Let’s tweak it a little bit. If we only include mobile devices, what you find at the top right is almost certainly the latest Galaxy, a “life companion” device meant to be applied to practically every situation you could ever encounter.

At the lower left is the lowly feature phone, humble in its capabilities and its ambitions. Towards the upper right you have the iPhone, which, despite being advanced and versatile, is not explicitly intended for quite so many uses as the larger, more intense Samsung (witness the extra sensors, larger screen, etc on the latter). In fact, most everything would likely be clustered loosely around a line between the origin and the Galaxy.

Solve for Y

Now, if you’ll recall, the lower right was, previously, where the world shifted to as soon as it was possible. What do we see there now?

Not a lot.

There are a few, arguably. Wearable devices like the Fitbit or iPod shuffle, for instance, or e-paper devices imitating paper but communicating over 3G. And while wearable devices are indeed an increasingly popular area of development, they don’t quite scratch the itch I’m reaching for here. For one thing, they mostly offload their interfaces and many functions to other devices, and as such act more as an extension of your phone or PC, an extra accelerometer or temperature sensor that’s more convenient to carry or embed than a whole phone.

What the generation of devices succeeding the PC (back to the first graph, now) added was portability, certainly, but more importantly, they added focus. They took the idea of the PC and redesigned it around a single purpose. This produced some wonderful devices: The original iPod and dedicated GPS units I mentioned were incredibly good at what they did.

Now we have come full circle: Mobile devices built around the idea of the original PC — Swiss Army knives once more.

But think about what you do with your phone. The readers of this site probably do a lot more than the average user, but still, most use would fall within the basic categories of calling, written communication, web, imaging, gaming, and location.

I think we’re going to see devices laser-focused on one or two of these categories fairly soon. Maybe that sounds a little weird, first because there are already devices like that, and second because one might credibly argue that there’s no point to them. But I disagree with both points, thou man of straw.

Devices like the Galaxy Camera and Xperia Play (and to a certain extent Google Glass) may appear in some ways to be an attempt at a totally refocused mobile device, but let’s be honest: they are grotesque frankengadgets, the modern equivalent of CD-MP3 players, combining the drawbacks of two device classes in one handy package. We haven’t seen, for example, a device that truly marries the accessibility and connectivity of an iPhone with the picture-taking prowess of a DSLR, or a device that revolves entirely around your location while providing the versatility of apps and services, or a device focused specifically on the storing and organization of rich silent media like articles and books. Instead, every device is a compromise rather than a reinvention.

…When there’s nothing left to take away

But the iPhone’s camera is great, you say! And you can get apps that provide the functionality you speak of, without removing other functionality from the device!

This perspective, however, is a by-product of peak multifarity. The more the better! Go Samsung! Ten pages of apps! But good design, which one encounters surprisingly seldom these days in the devices and interfaces we use the most, may be considered the result of subtraction rather than addition. People didn’t stop buying regular knives when Swiss Army knives came out. And of course people didn’t stop buying PCs when BlackBerries, iPods, and GPS units came out. Some things do one thing well, and some do many things adequately. It’s good to be able to choose between them.

Because you want the right tool for the job, of course. And right now we’re using the same tool for every job — which is a natural thing when we are exploring the capabilities of a technology. The first guy to build a hammer probably didn’t stop banging on things for days. And we’re so enamored of our all-purpose pocket computers that we haven’t thought how we might improve them by reducing their scope rather than increasing it.

People want focus, and people want to belong to a niche. We gravitate naturally towards these things as reflections of our personality and of our needs. Those needs and, it goes without saying, our personalities, differ widely. One person wants a six-inch screen with LTE and unlimited data so he can watch Netflix on the train. Another wants one with no audio at all, because it’s used entirely for pictures and email. Another (me, in fact) wants an e-ink screen on one side and a solar panel on the other.

The variety we crave does not exist yet; the variety we have is of the most limited sort. It may take a while, and there will probably be a few false starts, but I think (and hope) that this will be one of the next steps in the evolution and further proliferation of our companion devices.