Portable Consumer Electronics, not much new... except for integration

I remember being totally over the moon just six years ago when I discovered that my Nextel cell phone/radio actually had a GPS antenna and could give me my position's latitude and longitude coordinates. Making any use of this information six years ago was mostly limited to finding these coordinates in an atlas, as not even Google Earth yet existed "back then". By that time digital cameras (one device that could take both photos and video clips) were normal to many consumers. MP3 players were starting to acquire great popularity with Apple's iPod and iTunes, it didn't take too long before a radio tuner could be attached, and some competitors incorporated the player with file storage. SMS became popular shortly after, and then came the cell phone games and cameras. The consumer electronics integration has long left behind it's point of no return.

Canadian-based Research in Motion literally shook the market in 2002 by introducing the Blackberry, mainly a cell phone that could synchronize with e-mail accounts, contact lists and calendars.  Blackberries' reinvention strategy made them a moving target for competitors, but the market finally saw a worthy rival in early 2007: the Apple iPhone.  One can easily tell that Apple went the extra mile to introduce a concept rather than another smart phone.  Besides the expected minimum features at that time (phone, web browser, e-mail, ring tones, MP3 player, etc.), the ease of developing, marketing and installing new applications is to me the true breakthrough iPhones are offering.  Just imagine my reaction when I discovered that the App Store included hundreds of add-ins as vast as fully graphic chromatic tuners for only US$ 3.99 (handy for Highland bagpipes and many other instruments)... only five years after my excitement of a phone having a GPS antenna!!  At present the market for smart phones has new players (e.g. Samsung's Omnia, and Palm's Centro) and is fiercely competing with the number of mega pixels their cameras have, the effectiveness of their touch screen, the hours of video one can store, the accuracy of their GPSs, and many other aspects... in some cases the price.

The curious aspect of the last half decade or so is that the highlight of portable consumer electronics technologies has been the integration of functionalities into combined devices. Though hardly any of these technologies are new to these past years, rather than another breakthrough, the objective seems to have been making the base technologies smaller and smaller, and fitting as many functions as possible into one device.

A technology is here to stay when the consumer instantly forgets what life was like before using a certain device. The key to the consumer's adoption of new technology has always been in finding value through some aspect of convenience, be it saving time, money, energy, space, increasing productivity, etc. For example, heating water for a cup of tea in a kettle has been practically abolished since microwave ovens were popularized.  Efficient use of time and energy was just waiting to happen, and when that day arrived microwave ovens effortlessly became integrated with the consumer's habits. In the case of portable electronics, I assume most consumers seamlessly adopt the reduced size and convenience of integrating more than one function into one device.

But there seems to be a down side common to these technological integrations. Consumers still see their devices to have a base functionality (principal use of the device) and the rest of them... and I don't blame them.  For example a cell phone with a camera is first a cell phone, then a camera (a camera on it's own will always have more graphic resolution); or a GPS with an MP3 player is first a GPS, then an MP3 player (an MP3 player will have more storage capacity and perhaps better output control).  How many times have you heard “I read your e-mail but I can't open the attachments on my Blackberry”? And I've yet to see a cell phone available on the market today that offers anything similar to Garmin's “lane assist” (and other recent features).  Consumers' forgiveness must come from the convenience of having “all” in one.

Garmin's nuvi705 series "lane assist" feature.

From the manufacturer's perspective, some of them appear to have adopted the route of pushing the limits in their own front, and accepting that integration is necessary; while others seem to be struggling to eventually provide a balanced all-in-one device.  An interesting competition to follow.

If it were up to me, here's my idea (It's almost Christmas, so why not send a wish-list to “San-tech-laus”?). Let's say today I have a series of appointments, in many locations. My calendar function of my multi-purpose device will know what my next appointment is. The GPS function will know where I am, and how much time it should take me to get to my next appointment (including real-time input on traffic conditions). Given a pre-configured lead time, my device should alert me when it is time to wrap-up. This also tends to be seen as less rude than checking your watch every 2 minutes because clearly you are already thinking of getting to your next engagement.  An optional feature could be that if my ETA varies beyond a preset threshold of punctuality (let's say 5 minutes), my multi-purpose device should send a courtesy SMS with my new ETA to the person waiting for me (needless to say this is much safer than making a phone call while nervously driving in traffic).

Something I thought would already be available by now is the e-wallet. A device (or function therein) that can transfer electronic funds to a vendor's receiver within a short range (i.e. a couple of steps ahead of plastic debit/credit cards). This was elaborated in detail in Bill Gates' “The Road Ahead”, first published in 1995!  None of this is impossible given today's technology, especially the e-wallet that was already feasible with technology available thirteen years ago.

This integration has proven to be one of the most exciting technological escalations ever, and from the consumer's point of view, it can only get better! 

Click on the following links for more information:
Master of Technology
Research in Motion
Apple iPhone (3 left), Research in Motion's BlackBerry Storm (right)
(C) Research in Motion - (C) Apple Inc.