In consumer electronics, digital convergence makes multifunction products ridiculously cheap to build. Designers no longer seem to think twice about attempting high levels of integration—it just sort of happens. What concerns me is the all-too-easy extension of this thinking into enterprise environments that ought to have different priorities.
Its compellingly tempting to hang a Christmas tree of inputs and outputs on a single shared structure with a power supply at its base, a microprocessor as its trunk and an LCD as its glittering star. Put a microphone on that structure, and you have a voice recorder; put a hard disk and some firmware in it, and it becomes a jukebox. Put a lens and an imaging chip on it, and its a still camera—or even a video camera, if it can handle the bits rapidly enough.
This is being realized quickly in the marketplace: Panasonics SV-AV50—which measures less than 1 by 2 by 4 inches and weighs less than a quarter of a pound—is a typical example. It combines digital still and video cameras with a digital voice recorder and music player in a package that lists for about $400. Concords new DV2020 offers a similar combination for about $250.
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Makers of low-cost digital cameras are already feeling the competition of these affordable media multitools: Four digicam makers in Taiwan reported declining revenues last month, with the growing popularity of cell phone cameras considered the likely cause. Things will get worse for dedicated digicam vendors this month, with cell phone cameras breaking the 3-megapixel threshold in a planned new handset from Casio. These devices will be contenders for people who want to make prints in addition to populating their Web site photo galleries.
But even in these mass-market consumer devices, the attractions of low cost have to be balanced against reduced function and compromised ergonomics. "Did you intend for me to amputate my right index finger in order to take a decent picture?" rhetorically inquired one reviewer of the Panasonic unit at www.georeviews.com. Theres only so much space to put the controls on these tiny things, to say nothing of trying to design a decent user interface for a 2-inch screen.
Autofocus speed and accuracy, as well as optical features such as zoom lenses and image stabilizers, also continue to create real product differentiation. Nonetheless, sales of camera-equipped phones grew fivefold between 2002 and last year, outnumbering sales of dedicated digital cameras. "Good enough and cheaper" is a sales pitch that often works.
Its one thing, however, to deal with this kind of tension in the consumer devices space, where the person who chooses to cut costs is also the person who will suffer any resulting inconvenience or lack of capability. Its quite another question, with much larger costs in the answer, when the integration imperative infiltrates the enterprise data center.
Lower acquisition costs, and lower costs of smaller equipment footprints, are obvious benefits. Frustration and wasted time are the less easily measured costs when IT staff must wrestle with subtle and obscure interactions in highly integrated software platforms or general-purpose server hardware.
One of the most important messages from eWEEKs Web Security Summit event, held in Boston during the summer of 2000, is the value of executing separate functions on separate boxes rather than using general-purpose operating systems on servers that are loaded with tasks until they beg for mercy. Ease of inspecting and controlling the traffic between one box and another can give operators a real edge in managing disruptive events or developing workaround strategies.
This 4-year-old advice has lost none of its vigor, and there are other, less exotic reasons to maintain modularity: Highly integrated devices become single points of failure, whether its something as basic as a single power supply or as tricky as a shared weakness in implementing an encryption algorithm.
Requirements should flow upward, rather than cost pressures downward, when enterprise IT systems are designed. In the long run, its never a bargain to do less than you need or to make the enterprise infrastructure more difficult to analyze, manage and maintain.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.