Is the All-in-One Device Dream Doomed?

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images-2Roger McNamee and I have two things in common. One: I desperately need a haircut. Two: I’ve officially given up on the dream of one-device-that-can-rule-them-all.

In this video, McNamee shows off his famously unruly locks and his famous Batman-like utility belt, in which he carries at least two iPhones, a Palm Pre, a Centro, a G1 and a Blackberry. In the clip, he’s telling me the Palm Pre won’t replace all of them, but it’ll come the closest. All I was thinking was “A keyboard and a good browser?! The Palm Pre will solve all my problems. When and where can I get one? My precious…my precious…”

Similarly, as the Pre’s release date gets closer, experts are getting in a tizzy about the upcoming “super smart phone” wars, which will ostensibly create a new golden age of competing options for consumers. But reading Walt Mossberg’s excellent compare-and-contrast of them all, I couldn’t help getting more and more jaded that this perfect device doesn’t exist and never will. Android has a great UI, but so far bad hardware. Microsoft and Blackberry are outdated in a lot of ways. The iPhone lacks a keyboard and is tied to AT&T. And Palm’s Pre looks great, but it’s still a Hail Mary play that could disappoint.

It seems the closer the industry gets to this elusive all-in-one promise, the more they disappoint. It’s a cycle we’ve seen over and over again in technology whether in hardware, enterprise software, or the Web. There’s an inexplicable tension between simplicity/reliability and doing it all. Think about it: Our phones now include cameras, video, email, instant message, music, the Web, games. But as the list of features on any one device gets longer, most people I know are carrying more devices than ever, not fewer.

I’m starting to think I’m doomed to have a utility belt of my own if I want any peace in my digital life. To continue my odd “Lord of the Rings” analogy, my hope that this one perfect device can bring stability and unity to my world is only making me irritable and paranoid—mostly that I’m missing calls, emails and appointments.

As of now, I’m saddled with a Blackberry Curve that works roughly 45% of the time. One of its more amusing quirks was the month when it refused to ring when Michael Arrington called. Only Michael Arrington. All I want is a phone with a keyboard that reliably sends and receives email and has a decent Web browser. Bonus points if it can work internationally. In an age of so-called “super smart phones,” when I’m paying close to $100 a month in service, why should that be too much to ask?

The biggest frustration– and perhaps core of the problem– is how many parties there are to blame. Take my own epic-fail-Berry: The biggest culprit is a company called 01.com, which supports my Zimbra email account. I love Zimbra’s user interface and features, but Zimbra doesn’t offer support. It worked well on my Treo, but Blackberry service has been a total nightmare. The company cops out that its Blackberry enterprise support is still “in beta.” Yeah, because Blackberries are, um, new devices?

Then there’s Sprint. The service plans are way too opaque, and I have a feeling I’m paying way too much for service. And it doesn’t work internationally. That’s incredibly annoying since I’m in other countries about half the time, and it’s one of the main reasons to own a Blackberry.

Then there’s the Blackberry hardware itself. Its battery can’t even last a whole day when it’s roaming, which it always is the days I’m at Yahoo’s headquarters. Even the third-party company that provides the insurance on the device gives you something to hate. When my first Blackberry got water-logged, they replaced it with one that didn’t work. I got another “refurbished” one that mostly works, but sometimes decides to die unexplainably. What is the point of insurance!? Sprint shrugs and says it’s an outside company and they can’t control it.

Every week when the device invariably malfunctions, I don’t know which company to hate the most and each of these players love to pass the buck around to each other. I’m not alone. Check out yet another TechTicker interview with Om Malik where he lambasts RIM’s CEO for saying buggy software was just a “reality” in today’s smart phone business. “Their business is making phones, if you can’t make phones with proper software, go sell peanuts,” he says. Hear, hear!

People tell me to get an iPhone but there are equal frustrations with AT&T’s 3G network and battery life; plus I need a physical keyboard. Most people I know who love their iPhone admit one of two things when you press them: Either they’re on their second, third or fourth phone or they also carry a Blackberry for email.

Compare that big mess to the devices that are actually delighting me these days. Most of them do only one thing, but they do it extremely well and reliably.

For instance, I no longer use the video camera on my Blackberry or my digital camera, instead I carry a FlipCam. I like how it feels in my hand, the navigation is drop-dead simple and I don’t need a cord to upload the video. The battery always works, and it holds just enough footage. I have never pushed the record button and not had it just record.

Similarly, I no longer try to read blogs or get news updates on my BlackBerry. Instead, I have a far better experience on my Kindle. I open it up and all my blogs and papers have been pushed to the easy-to-navigate device. What’s more: I can clip the passages or articles I want to read later or keep with one-click. Beautiful.

Even the iPod Touch has a role in my life. I don’t want an iPhone, but I love the idea of plugging the Touch into my sound dock and listening to the Pandora app around the house. (We haven’t actually gotten this to work yet, but I’m hopeful.) I’m sure if I spent more time with it, I’d find more applications I’d like without having to bring AT&T into the equation.

Sometime this week I’m getting a Peek email device. If nothing else, I’ll have it as a cheap backup to my Blackberry that so rarely works. If you’re not familiar with the Peek, see the video with the founder below. He was on Press:Here Sunday along with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Both companies have mastered the beauty of restraint and simplicity. (Although I still think the Peek’s service should be closer to $10 if they want mass adoption.)

And somewhat in the same category, I just got a MacBook Air, which I adore. If I need an ethernet port or a DVD player I can plug external devices into the USB. But I don’t need those things all the time, and with the Air I don’t have to carry them around inside a bulkier laptop. It works better and is faster than either of my other two MacBooks. And there’s the obvious plus that it is light enough I can actually carry it anywhere, so I invariably get more use out of it than other laptops I own.

And in my new, crestfallen world, weight matters: Just like Smart Phones are getting “feature creep,” my purse is clearly getting “device creep.” In fact, I’ve abandoned the purse altogether. Instead it’s a dorky backpack that has room for my Air, my Kindle, my Flip, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Peek (coming soon) and a yet undecided upon phone that will work internationally. And don’t forget their various cords. I may have Roger McNamee’s problems, but I’m drawing the line at an actual utility belt.

It’s hardly ideal, but seven years after buying my first smart phone, I’ll take a series of devices that actually work over one that over-promises, under-delivers and continually disappoints.

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