Is the future a toaster fridge or a toaster oven?
Can unitasking technology products successfully converge into a multi-tasking powerhouse? Last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook told analysts the answer is no—at least when it comes to tablets and traditional computers. Responding to a question about whether the iPad and MacBook Air might converge, Cook said, “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator but, you know, those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user…. You wind up compromising in both.”
The Toaster-Fridge could become a lightning rod for debate over whether converging devices is a good idea. To find out, we asked our Dan Frakes and Melissa J. Perenson to discuss the issue.
Dan Frakes: Ah, “convergence.” It’s always been a dream, putting the functions of multiple gadgets into a single übergadget. Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to keep my gadgets separate, thank you, until there’s a compelling reason to combine them—and until that convergent device does everything as well as the dedicated devices it replaces.
Melissa J. Perenson: I’m a proponent of the trend, but no product should go to market purporting to do something, but taking a shortcut to get there. That does no one any good, and simply perpetuates the reputation of multipurpose devices as being mediocre in all their aspects.
DF: Right—convergence can be a good thing. But true convergence is difficult. For every iPhone, there are dozens of Motorola ROKRs, Nokia N-Gages, Mac TVs, Oakley Thumps, Fossil Smart Watches, and refrigerator TVs. They don’t do anything, or at least not everything, well, so you end up sacrificing functionality or usability in the name of convergence.
The iPhone is actually the rare success here. But two things made the iPhone work. First, the things it does (phone, media player, Internet, apps) are things I want with me all the time, and that previously required separate devices. Second, Apple found ways to do these things better than each of the standalone devices that came before it, and integrated those functions well. (Other smartphone vendors are seeing success here, too, largely by mimicking Apple’s example.)
The problem with most convergence devices is that they aren’t as focused, and the companies that make them don’t take the time to make the various functions work well together. And I think those are the challenges faced by hardware manufacturers—and operating-system vendors—that want to combine the laptop and the tablet.
MP: Yes, those are the challenges. But they are challenges that can be met—if both hardware manufacturers and app or OS developers put the same attention to detail into the overall integrated experience. We haven’t seen many deliver on that yet. The closest to success would be Asus’ Transformer series of Android tablets, and those are constrained by the Android OS. Meanwhile, not even the iPhone can escape these challenges. It works well for light use across a broad spectrum of tasks, but when I use my iPhone heavily across functions—as a camera, as a music player, as a phone, as a GPS, as a data pass-through—even it suffers from Convergence Syndrome, be it that the battery dies prematurely or that I run low on storage space.
DF: The biggest thing that concerns me about converging laptops and tablets: Different operating systems, apps, and interfaces are better for different things. To use current examples, OS X and Windows are just better at desktop-type tasks, whereas iOS and Android have clear advantages on touchscreen devices and gadgets with smaller screens. Microsoft is trying to bridge this gap with Windows 8, but so far the results haven’t impressed me much. Until there’s an OS that works equally well on an array of gadgets, I think we’re stuck with the “exercise in compromise” thing.
MP: Well, that’s why I’m cautiously optimistic, even enthusiastic, about Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy. I agree that today, we don’t really have the degree of interoperability necessary to bridge the gap. But interoperability is the holy grail. I don’t want to use my tablet one way, and then be forced to use an app on my laptop differently. Or to use entirely different apps because app X or game Y doesn’t even exist for my Windows or Mac laptops. Assuming that the app component of Microsoft’s equation comes along to complement Windows 8, then I look forward to buying only one app for use on my tablet and laptop, and having both behave the same way. The biggest reason that the iPad remains limited to me is that it, fundamentally, cannot replace my laptop for some of my core tasks.
Granted, my tasks are not yours—mine are photography-specific—but that’s the thing, my unique use. And the inability of the iPad or any of the current Android tablets to keep up with that means I’ll always have to carry a laptop, too. I’m looking forward to the day when the first PC ultrabook comes along that also lets me detach the display so I can use it independently of the keyboard. I’ll open my wallet for that in a heartbeat, with one caveat: I don’t want to make compromises. That gadget would be a non-starter if it meant having only three hours of battery life, for example.
DF: You’ve touched on one of my other doubts: the practical challenges. People already complain that Apple made the third-generation iPad slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2. Tablet users like their devices thin and light, because the tasks you use them for often require you to hold them up, rather than set them on your lap. Once you start adding traditional laptop features, you end up with a device that’s heavier and thicker. And, of course, the iPad gets 10 hours of battery life, while even the best small laptops these days get just four or five. Getting good battery life is going to be tricky without adding even more bulk.
And what about screen size? Today’s tablet screens are much smaller than today’s laptop screens. Depending on the compromise each vendor takes, a convergence device could be seen as a too-big tablet or a laptop with a too-small screen. And there’s screen quality. If you’re going to use this new device as a tablet, you’re going to want a screen comparable in quality to the iPad’s Retina display. That’s going to be pricey for larger screens.