Tom Chi  

Convergence

January 30th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Whenever I hear the word “Convergence” I think of the parable of the blind men and the Elephant. One dude says: “This is a Phone.” Another says: “No, its a PDA.” The Marketer says: “This is the most powerful gaming system known to man.” All the while I’m thinking it’s just a camera/mp3player with voice recorder that also tells time.

The big companies have been promising convergence for years now, and we are finally entering the age wherein every gadget is a veritable electronic Swiss army knife. Yet convergence comes with a host of problems. How does one market something that does so many things? How does a designer make all these functions usable? How will the user find the functions in the first place?

Many have approached the problem by basing the device on a small computer, wherein the interface is all on screen. This is very flexible, but loses something the best hardware has always had: the ability to use it without looking at it.On a well designed walkman, camera or phone the buttons are in places that the user can operate without ever looking at the screen. Decades of industrial design created these forms to fit the function of the hardware. As we add functions to the new generation of converged hardware, we must either make the form complicated, or we must offload the complexity to software. While software can be iterated on more quickly than hardware (excluding firmware), we all know that making software usable is a formidable task in itself. Now pile 4 completely different applications into the same tiny box and offer just a few buttons to control it all, and you’ve arrived at convergence.

Now that companies are betting big on convergence, it is high time for them to start investing in usability engineers and not just industrial designers. The mountain of unusable devices continues to grow, and for each new phone with number keys arranged in a spiral or spiky toroid… man. I’m just speechless. Where were the usability folks when they were deciding what color alien script to emboss on the keys or when they hid critical options under 12 layers of menus?

To some extent I can understand how this occurred. The simple fact is that the companies behind convergence to date are extremely hardware orientated. Their core competencies are DSP, circuit design, comm theory, audio, etc, and to the average electrical engineer, a bank of 8 LEDs and some dipswitches and jumpers are “not a bad interface.” (I am an electrical engineer, so don’t write me angry letters). Well, in order to create a device that really shines, it’s necessary that the key scenarios are enabled at all levels down to the firmware, PCB, and compression algorithms.

Up on the high-level, it is critical that the converged functions support and complement each other, otherwise the device will be nothing more than a collection of suboptimal devices, none of which performing acceptably compared to the standalone device. Simple examples of this include being able to voice annotate photographs. More fancifully, you could imagine an mp3 player with a radio tuner which reads metadata and category information on your files to pick stations for you when you visit a new city… better yet, it could nabs tracks you will probably like off the radio. Haha. Hey there RIAA, I was just kidding, really!

I’d be interested in hearing other ideas for convergent devices, or to hear from readers who have had a really great (or terrible) experience with existing convergent devices.

6 Responses to “Convergence”
Bob Salmon wrote:

Sorry about the multi-purpose (convergent?) post.

1. I see your characters are borrowing James Bond’s toys - can we expect rings that cut bullet-proof glass next or even some nice cars? It was even more of a suspension of disbelief than normal for Bond when his mobile zapped the German baddy with 20,000v and then acted as a remote control for his car and Bond wasn’t fumbling in the special spare-battery-for-mobile-phone pocket of his Saville Row suit.

2. This brings me towards the topic (slightly). We’ve already had (poorly designed) convergent devices for a while - the remote controls that can talk to TV, video etc. Most of them have far too many buttons and aren’t very usable, even though the multi functions are fairly closely related.

3. This reminds me of an excellent Garfield cartoon. Garfield is sitting watching TV and turns it off by pressing a button on the remote control. Not only does the TV turn off, but the doors of the TV cabinet slam shut. Then the cabinet folds in half, then in half again until all that’s left is a pile of planks of wood. Garfield then looks at the control and says “No wonder, this is the garage door closer.”

4. I work for a company that bills for these convergent devices e.g. a mobile phone that does voice calls, SMS messages and internet downloads. The same convergence can cope with gas, phone and electricity etc. on the same bill if you get them from the same supplier. This sounds great, but you get the phenomenon called Bill Shock: How much! (The scare from the total of all your utility bills is greater than the sum of the scare of each bill separately. Hmmm… sounds like Pythagoras to me.) So even though it’s technologically possible (due to our wizardry) the user reaction says it’s sometimes not a good idea. Where have I heard that one before?

David Gee wrote:

Good timing, here’s a related link on CNN:

http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/ptech/01/30/unfriendlier.electronics.ap/index.html

Jon wrote:

I own a Sidekick [http://www.hiptop.com/forums/index.php] and while I have nothing but enjoyed my experience with the device, it is a riot to watch others pick it up, not to mention how I look like a complete idiot when I talk on the “phone” portion ..

Phelyan wrote:

I have to admit that I gave in to shiny gadgetry and swiss-army-knife-ness and bought Nokia’s 3650 smartphone. The most notable feature is the keypad which has its keys arranged almost (but not quite) like on the old analog phones with the dialling disc. The keypad has a total of 19 keys and a joypad, much more than most phones, and takes a little while to get used to.

When it comes to convergence, I would rate the device as a good phone, a good messaging device, a good eBook reader, a good wap browser, a semi-decent games machine, watch/stopwatch, camera and calculator and a questionable organiser, which is mainly due to the fact that character input is awkward.

I can live with the drawbacks, because, like in the ads, I only have to take my phone with me to actually have access to all that. It is very much like the little saw you get on swiss army knives. It’s pants and you reach its limits very soon, but it is usable and good to have. If you need a bigger saw, take it with you.

I think we are ready for convergence, but we have to understand its limits. A phone with a build in camera will not be able to replace a decent digicam. A hand held games console with build-in calculator is unlikely to have the same power as Texas Instruments’ latest model. And I don’t think it should. Not even the average desktop PC can claim to perform all tasks its capable of with maximum performance, if you know what I mean.

Meri wrote:

Just in case anyone here hasn’t seen this particular prime example yet:

http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/02/10/1852237

Roomba Review wrote:

I’m sorry, but the problem isn’t with convergence, it’s simply the fact that it takes so long for them to get it right!

Since the first palm pilot was released, I’ve been scratching my head as to why people would pay hundreds of dollars for a glorified address book. Why on earth would people walk around with a cell phone, a pager, a pocket pc, and an mp3 player when they could all be in the same unit?

For me, convergence can’t come soon enough. I can’t stand these 1 trick ponies. Try to imagine if your house was cluttered with a separate device for writing e-mails, browsing the web, word processing, gaming, and banking. That’s the stage we’re at now with handheld devices. I agree that no one has gotten it right yet, but personally, I’m waiting until they do.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?