- Anti-convergence -

(Note: This dates back to 2017 or so, and I'm honestly not sure why I didn't post it then.  But the future has borne me out.)

Ask a geek what the future of computing looks like, and you'll probably get one of two answers.

Possibility I:

- The smartphone evolves into something resembling the Star Trek PADD (or DynaBook), which crushes all competing form factors through ubiquity and network effects.

The idea that one device can meet all of a user's needs is called "convergence". Beefier compute jobs (servers, etc.) are handled by clusters of inexpensive smartphone processors. Tablets have taken over the consumer market and ARM has taken over the world.

One of my "intro-to-cs" textbooks made a similar prediction back in 2007 or so, and I've been watching with interest ever since.

Support for this idea:

-  Since 20XX the smartphone has been the most common "personal computer" in the world. 

-  The smartphone has already obsoleted the netbook, digital camera, video camcorder, iPod, PalmPilot, GameBoy, etc.

-  The tablet form factor is well suited for everyday tasks while still being adaptable to more demanding use-cases through the addition of cheap peripherals: say, a folding keyboard cover.

-  Repurposed smartphone hardware (Raspberry Pi) has become a bestselling general-purpose computer, adaptable to everything from embedded hardware projects to desktop use.

Possibility II:

Pursuing victory in the "feature war", every manufacturer of every conceivable product drops in an $0.99 ARM chip, networking and a touchscreen, thus creating another contender for the One True Form Factor, and raking in the sweet, sweet venture capital/Kickstarter bucks. Soon you're living the Jetsons dream, reading clickbait on your VR-enabled toaster while your coffee mug flashes Facebook notifications at you across the room.

These are both fine ideas. The world being a complicated and contradictory place, both appear to be happening at once. From a logical standpoint this doesn't make a lot of sense. Are we coming together or breaking apart? Are smartphones taking over the world from PC's. or are both platforms just leaves in a whirlwind?

The problem is that these predictions are both focused on the technology itself, as opposed to the plausible ways in which people would actually adapt to the new technologies. There's a difference between

I. How many things CAN IT DO (i.e., convergence), vs.


When geeks talk about the future, it's usually in sense (I). We're enamored with capabilities and possibilities, to the point where we don't consider whether a given innovation is actually a usability win for the average person. And in the long run it is real-world usability and convenience that decides how a technology will fit into the world.

For instance, the same time period which obsoleted the point-and-shoot camera also gave us the GoPro. A GoPro doesn't really do anything that your smartphone camera wouldn't... but would you want to strap your smartphone onto a drone and fly it around the neighborhood? (And without smartphone in hand, how would you control that drone?) The GoPro is useful not because of technological excellence, but because it serves a useful purpose. Someone viewing the world through the lens of convergence wouldn't have predicted it to be a success.

Similarly, over the last couple of years it is slowly becoming fashionable to hate smartphones, because while they've become an indispensible part of our daily lives, they're not really well tailored to any of the tasks they're asked to do. My old monochrome LG flip-phone was a much better phone than my Galaxy Note, in terms of call quality and battery life; similarly my Palm Pilot is much better at note taking.  Both of those lo-tech devices were specialized solutions to tightly scoped problems; by necessity, as the technology didn't yet exist to build an all-in-one device. This kind of slick, single-purpose device is getting harder to find as convergence renders them obsolete. And that's how you get hipsters keeping the old devices alive. "Distraction-free" has become a feature all its own.

When smartphones were new, they were not only a convenience, but also a status symbol. As they've transitioned from "shiny new toy" to "basic part of human existence", they've lost some of that shine. The role of status symbol has been filled by other, less ubiquitous devices.

As soon as any platform creeps far enough towards market dominance, we'll see forces like this begin creeping out of the woodwork to preserve its old competitors and create new challengers. Ten years ago we saw it happen to the PC: now it is happening to the smartphone.

Maybe it's human nature; we spend years lusting for a portable all-in-one device with access to the world's knowledge, that can organize our entire life and keep us in touch with friends anywhere in the world... and once we get it, it becomes socially mandatory to own one, and the device begins to be viewed as an Orwellian taskmaster and the source of all stresses and distractions in life. The grass is always greener.

If anything, I think the future lies between those two futuristic visions. Convergence may eventually allow any device to perform any task, but in practice, people will only use each device for the limited set of purposes which it's good at. Your smartphone still plays into this, but not necessarily as the single "household god" around which your life revolves. Maybe it's even been replaced by a smartwatch, or some kind of AR device. As one Hacker News commenter puts it, there's nothing sacred about the "rectilinear slab" form factor; it just happens to be serviceable until something better comes along.

The key word being something "better".
- Nav -
(L)atest, (A)rchive, (H)ome