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Palm Column

Convergence vs Modularity

by Shawn Barnett
September 2001, issue 41

Will our handheld devices one day do everything? Many top thinkers say so. And why not? Why should I have a cell phone and a PDA and a digital camera, for example? Why can't they be one? Many manufacturers, including Palm OS manufacturers, are asking themselves the same question; and analysts are shouting from the rooftops: "Convergence is coming, and why not?!"

I'll tell you why not. Complexity, obsolescence, vulnerability, and consumers' desire for choice. Let me elaborate.

First, let's define what we're talking about. The device I'm thinking of as a base is the most popular and historically profitable of personal portable electronic devices next to the wristwatch: the cell phone, master of verbal communication. Next on the list is the PDA, containing the potential for data storage and computing power. The PDA's value is increased by the cell phone because it can communicate to broaden its data gathering capability, and the PDA improves the cell phone by allowing easy retrieval of saved data, and the obvious advantage of easy dialing from the address book. And because we're always snapping our fingers and saying, "Dang, I wish I had a camera right now," let's just throw in the added value of a digital camera, and build it all into one small handheld device. It's all possible with today's technology, so let's do it with three different companies.

Nokia hits the market with a Symbian-OS cell phone that runs on GSM and a generic 320 x 240 quarter VGA camera, complete with voice recording and all the great stuff the OS offers. Motorola comes out with a Palm-OS-based cell phone that has analog and TDMA capabilities. It has a 640 x 480 camera made in their labs, removable storage-say, SD-and it has a built-in FRS radio and GPS. Finally, Palmax makes a stunning Pocket PC-based CDMA phone with a 2.1 megapixel digital camera and industry-standard CF Type II expansion, with MP3 audio and video.

They all sound great! Until you try them out. Turns out that the Nokia, as you've experienced, is a great mobile phone, but the Symbian OS just doesn't do what you'd expect it to. You're a long-time CE user and just can't get the hang of EPOC. And the digital camera is just terrible. As for the Motorola, it just doesn't compare to the Nokia's voice quality, as you've experienced many times before. It has the great GPS and FRS radio, plus the Palm OS that works well, but you wish the image quality were better. As for the Palmax, as is often the case from this innovative manufacturer, the Pocket PC implementation is the best you've seen: fast, great feel and physical design, great camera with a reasonable lens-but the phone sucks. Despite the excellent CDMA network, most of your calls are dropped and the dang thing just doesn't work at your home; and forget about data transmission, because it crashes just trying to display the Yahoo! home page. While it takes great pictures, you can't email them to anyone until you get home to send them from the PC.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these products won't come out, and I'm not saying people won't buy them. I'm just wondering whether they should, and whether people will be happy. After all, I've recently fielded scads of emails from readers who are already perplexed by their choices among the Palm OS machines announced in the last four months, and I've got a secret: they're really not all that different, especially when compared to the imagined units I've introduced above. You think you have too many choices now?

I also wonder whether manufacturers will sell enough "converged" devices to make a profit. Development dollars necessary to integrate all these technologies-and in such a way that the average Joe will actually use the specialized features-must somehow be recovered. Given the current state of the mobile handset industry, I don't see any profit on the horizon with devices that will bewilder discriminating early-adopter consumers before they even buy them.

As I look around my home, I'm forced to ask a more obvious question: where are the examples of convergence in past consumer product lines? I'd say my kitchen has the most consumer products, so let's go there. I see my toaster. Next to it is the coffee maker. Hmmm. They both have heating elements, right? Why weren't they combined to be more efficient? Well, my toaster is a Sunbeam and cost US$11. I'm no connoisseur of toast, so I didn't really care which brand I bought. I went for the cheapest. The coffee maker, on the other hand, is a Braun, and cost six times the price of the toaster. I'm no coffee connoisseur either, but a friend is, and she recommended the cone-type filter; and besides, Braun makes a great electric razor and toothbrush, so I consider myself a fan of the brand. If Braun made a coffee maker/toaster, I suppose I'd consider it because of the brand, but if I already had either, I'd be considerably less-inclined, and I'd be forced to wonder: what if one or the other mechanism broke?

Boy, that's an important question, especially when talking about consumer electronics. Some of us may be able to repair a toaster, but few would bother to repair modern electronic devices will all their tiny surface-mount components and microchips. Suppose the cell phone stops working in the Nokia. Do I keep it because it has a built-in EPOC computer that I don't know how to use well and a bad digital camera? How about that Motorola? If the GPS and FRS stopped working, I guess it would be okay as a Palm OS cell phone with a bad camera, but it certainly would make me mad every time I used it. You get the idea.

I'm afraid the crazy future I describe does indeed lay before us. But I believe the more successful products will be those that embrace modularity above convergence. The current handheld model in my opinion holds more promise than a primarily cell phone-based model, because users can choose which modules serve them better. Soon Visor users will be able to choose between VisorPhone and AirPrime's cell phone module, for example. And if the module-or even the Visor-breaks, one can be replaced without sacrificing the other.

Still, one or even two expansion ports is insufficient. Modern Palm OS devices have two: a memory or expansion slot, plus the HotSync port. I believe we need three or four: two SD or Memory Stick slots and one or two HotSync-type slots (one for keyboard, one for modem, say).

Because it's unlikely that anyone will create a single standard to which all will conform, the manufacturer with the most units available in the marketplace will likely attract the most third-party expansion developers. This business model better distributes development dollars among many interdependent players. The convergence model on the other hand burdens one company with greater costs that may ultimately result in devastatingly low sales figures. The PC without expansion ports has failed in the long run, even when it bundled many features. I believe the converged device will meet the same fate. -

Shawn Barnett can be reached via email at

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