The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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In praise of the single-use device

Derek Thompson writes:

Once upon a time, personal electronics were designed to be single-function. Cameras were cameras, only. Phones were phones, only. The computer was a heavy stationary thing. But engineers slowly figured out how to build smaller chips, store greater memory and consolidate 130 functions. Today a single smart phone can do all of these things: Take pictures, make calls, go online. It’s the Swiss Army Knife theory of technology.

Today it seems to me that there are at least three major classes of popular personal technology that have yet to be fully consolidated into a modern Swiss Army Knife: cell phones and computers and I think e-readers will soon fill that trio. The arc of personal tech history dictates that functions don’t remain separate for very long. Someday the idea of an e-reader designed merely to read will seem as limiting as the cell phone that doesn’t receive emails or the desktop that won’t fit in your satchel. It will still have an consumer audience, but it will be seen as behind the wave.

Fallows disagrees:

I’m skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. “Real” cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won’t be.

Josh Marshall splits the difference, but also takes it someplace a little different:

Just a short time ago we heard from one reader who can’t wait to get TPM on her Kindle. But she doesn’t seem representative of our audience. There are many fewer Kindles out there than iPhones, let alone Blackberries. But even among Kindle users, demand didn’t seem too great. A lot of you said that you love it for books. But it’s just not made for rapidly changing information, our more iterative style of writing and reporting. And it’s also not great visually for anything but pure text. Another way of saying this is that it’s designed for books, which of course it is. Just speaking for myself, and as someone who’s become an avid user of my Kindle for books, I think I agree. I’d love to be able (and I and you soon will be) to access a high-end iPhone app for all the stuff that’s available at TPM. But I can’t say the idea of reading TPM on my Kindle gets me too excited.

So, let’s review.

1) The overall trend is clearly towards media devices with multiple (but discrete) functions.
2) There’s still room for a solid handful of dedicated-use devices who do their job really, really well; for reading plain text, a device like the Kindle could fit into that category.
3) A lot of what we read isn’t plain text. It never was.

Potential solutions:

1) Whenever possible, tear down the walls between the “separate” functions on multi-function devices. It should feel like a device that has one function — just that the function is complex, multilayered, integrated.
2) Within the content, too, stop treating text as if it could be fully isolated as a separate data channel from every other kind of media.
3) The end of the multiple-function device, and perhaps even the multi-media object; the birth of the integrated-function device, and the integrated-media object. These last two were made for each other.


I save internet pages in plain text to read in Instapaper on my iPhone all the time, and it’s instructive in two ways: (1) the internet often CAN be successfully be reduced to plain text and (2) the idea that you need a big screen for reading text is silly — you need a big screen for graphics; the iPhone is perfect for reading text (especially with a page-flip interface ala Stanza vs a scroll interface ala Instapaper, but ok this is now officially more then two points).

But for whatever all that is worth, I agree with Thompson — an electronic READING device without WiFi and a decent web browser is at best like a sailboat — maybe not without its charms, but just counting the days until it’s made laughably obsolete by relatively obvious technology. I described my ideal e-book reader a few months ago.

There’s still something to be said for highly-readable low-power-consumption screens of the ebook readers. Will they find another application, or will they be a niche product with a small but stable consumer base? (think Minidist or DAT)

I think the problem that needs to be tackled is battery life in handhelds, laptops, cell phones, etc. Until it is, I agree that e-ink screens will have a place.

There’s also the WikiReader, very specifically designed to be a single-purpose and simple way to put Wikipedia in your pocket: “In a world with constant interruptions comes a device specifically designed to facilitate your focus. With 3 simple buttons and 3 million topics, WikiReader brings the iconic Wikipedia to all generations.” (which is cool, but I can’t think of anybody I know who would want one.)

Yes, devices like iPhones are seen as Swiss-Army all-in-one devices. But, in a way, *within* the iPhone app landscape we are seeing a trend towards single-function apps (versus the all-in-one apps desktops and even mobile apps have long had. The hardware advantages of single-function devices are as you note pretty compelling still, but the software and UI experiences of platforms like iPhone are perceived correctly as flexible enough to support any function.

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