Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.
Imagine carrying just one device that would do everything all your portable gadgets do now. A cell phone that holds all of your music that also happens to also be a GPS receiver, PDA, gaming handheld, camera, and video player. It would be wonderful! Cleared-out pocket real estate and the convenience of a tabletop covered in gadgets all wrapped into one. This is the idea of the unified gadget, and I hate to break it to you, but it's never going to happen. Due to restraints in technology and the nature of the consumer-electronics industry, the chances of a unified gadget coming into existence are so slim to none.
We can already see how the combining of gadgets leads to lesser quality. Look at Motorola's ROKR phone, which was touted as and iPod mixed with a phone, with total integration with iTunes. In theory, a cell phone combined with an iPod is a wonderful idea, but the ROKR is a pretty lousy version of both. Crippled by the constraints of technology and choices made by the manufacturer, the ROKR is a disaster. According to a review at MobileTracker, the phone simply can't handle playing music. It runs very slowly, and transferring songs takes an unreasonably long time. Furthermore, very basic features one would expect from a music phone just aren't there. Carriers are so protective of their lucrative ringtone business, even with a phone full of music you can't set one of your songs as a ring. And full of music is putting it generously: there's a firm 100-song limit that won't change even if you increase the memory. Why? Apple wants you to still buy a standalone iPod, surprise, surprise.
The buttons and menu systems that different devices require are (gasp) quite different, which brings up problems when you need the same set of buttons to do half a dozen tasks. That was the issue with the N-Gage, Nokia's foray into portable gaming. When a game unit was stuck into the size and shape of a phone, awkwardness was the result. In order to add serious gaming to a device, you not only face the problem of your hardware getting larger, but totally different controls are called for. You completely change the essence of a gadget when you add gaming functionality, which is why gaming portables work best as dedicated devices.
Then there's the issue of how good can a gadget be at any one task when it has to do many? Cameraphones are fun for taking messy photos of your friends, but no one is hooking a cameraphone up to their printer. You often need to use your provider's network to get photos to a computer (depending on your carrier), and the size restraints keep the cameras and lenses on the "low-end" side of the scale. Anyone knows that a standalone digital camera can beat the pants off of the fanciest cameraphone any day of the week. A cameraphone doesn't even pretend to be anything more than a toy.
Of course, leaps in technology will make shrinking devices a more realistic possibility, but I believe that even when it'll be possible to fit a 10-megapixel camera on the head of a pin, a standalone camera will still outperform a cameraphone. After all, why would Canon give its best goods to a Nokia device, or Apple its best music player to Motorola? Companies are too selfish to share their technologies so gracefully. While we're sure to see a couple of gadgets combined in a pleasing way in the near future, the idea of sticking everything into one device is one that will just never happen. I'd like to think that cell-phone providers will come to their senses and allow data to be freely transferred from phone to computer and vice versa, and I'd like to see Canon and Motorola develop an excellent phone-camera hybrid, but these companies don't have that much to gain by doing so. Instead they'll continue to do what they do now: focus on their own products and not much else.