The End of Single-Purpose Devices

Ahh, I love my modern digital lifestyle, especially when it comes to being out, whether traveling or just moving around the city. It's great that I can walk around with a music collection that dwarfs my old college record collection, that I can have several books in my pocket ready to read whenever I want and that I can snap a picture or video of anything I see. So what am I doing? Am I walking around with an MP3 player, an e-book reader, a digital camera and a digital camcorder? Nope, just one device, my BlackBerry smartphone, which lets me listen to music, read books, take pictures and video, and, oh, yeah, make calls, play games, manage contacts ...

Ahh, I love my modern digital lifestyle, especially when it comes to being out, whether traveling or just moving around the city. It's great that I can walk around with a music collection that dwarfs my old college record collection, that I can have several books in my pocket ready to read whenever I want and that I can snap a picture or video of anything I see.

So what am I doing? Am I walking around with an MP3 player, an e-book reader, a digital camera and a digital camcorder?

Nope, just one device, my BlackBerry smartphone, which lets me listen to music, read books, take pictures and video, and, oh, yeah, make calls, play games, manage contacts and so on.

I do own a nice MP3 player, a very good digital point-and-shoot camera and a Flip camcorder, and, while I don't own an e-book reader, I've had the chance to try out several. But I find that I'm leaving these devices at home more and more and just sticking with one multifunction device.

All of these single-purpose devices are excellent and in pretty much every case they are superior to the functionality in my smartphone. But it's also true that in most cases my smartphone is good enough.

Sure, it's not an iPod, but I can carry about 20 hours of music on it and it works fine. With the e-book reading software I added, the phone doesn't hold a candle to a Kindle but I've still managed to read over 20 books on it, including "Moby Dick" and "Great Expectations" (sure, I had to click "next page" about 10,000 times, but that was OK).

So while single-purpose devices will generally win on quality, they have a hard time competing in cost and convenience. And in most cases, the desire to not have to buy another gadget and definitely not have to carry around another gadget will lead people to choose a multifunction device that they already have over buying a new single-purpose device.

And in many cases this will lead to the ultimate demise of these single-purpose devices or, at best, a limited existence for them as high-quality niche products.

Don't believe me? Just look at history. Remember how big personal organizers like the Palm Pilot were? For a very short time they were a must-have gadget for many business users. Now their functions are basic functionality for even simple smartphones.

You can also see the same thing happening with MP3 players. It wasn't that long ago that little white earbuds were everywhere. Now, you're just as likely to see people listening to music on their phones.

Even Apple has recognized this. In many ways the company has been de-emphasizing the importance of iPods (When was the last time an iPod announcement was big?) and, as my colleague Nick Kolakowski has pointed out, Apple has been moving its iPod line away from single-purpose music players to focusing more on multifunction entertainment devices.

I think that e-book readers will have an even shorter lifespan as big-ticket items and will fairly quickly become niche devices, as they have even more negatives than the MP3 players.

Yes, reading a book on a device like a Kindle is a pleasant experience. But there are more than a few limitations.

As I already mentioned, there are the price and the size of the device (which aren't insignificant). But many dedicated e-book readers are also closed ecosystems, in which it can be hard to use books from other sources. Conversely, most of the smartphone-based reader applications I've used made it very easy to import anything, from old public domain books downloaded from Project Gutenberg to personal PDFs.

There will always be examples of single-purpose devices that survive and thrive, mainly because their functionality can't be easily incorporated into a multifunction device. And there will always be the need for high-quality devices; for example, while I expect simple point-and-shoot cameras to eventually go away, there will always be a market for high-end, professional-quality digital cameras.

But in many other cases, these single-purpose devices are destined to become just another feature of a device that can do many things. And while these multifunction devices may just do these things to a "good enough" standard, for many people, good enough is all they need.