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.
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.
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.