When a new device incorporates the functionality of two or more earlier devices, it is a converged device. The development of a convergence device occurs when miniaturization or economics makes it possible to cram extra functionality into an existing device, or when technology common to two devices is factored out to make a more efficient combined device.
For example, an old-style radio and gramophone (record player) both include an audio amplifier and loudspeakers. By building both devices into one cabinet and sharing the audio amplifier and loudspeakers, the result is a radiogram. Radiograms were popular in the 1950s and 1960s as a piece of living-room furniture, before being overtaken in the 1970s by another converged device: the portable cassette-radio.
Once you have a converged device, you can increase its functionality beyond that provided by its individual components. In the case of a cassette-radio, once you have a cassette recorder and a radio you can add the ability to record a radio program onto an audio cassette tape.
More recently, the miniaturization of electronics has enabled mobile phones to be reduced to pocket-size. Further miniaturization has made it possible to combine other functionality with the cellphone, and it has become common for a modern cellphone to include the functionality of a camera and a portable music player.
The latest high-end cellphones also include the full functionality of a mobile computer and a GPS receiver, and can be programmed to use their inputs and outputs in ways that replace a wide range of devices.
The Apple iPhone, for example, is a phone, a music player, an internet browser, a camera, a satellite navigation device (sat-nav) and more.
The Nokia N900 adds stereo speakers, a keyboard, an infra-red controller, an FM radio transmitter, and more. Some of the portable devices that it subsumes include:
- a cellphone
- a music player
- an internet browser
- a satellite navigation device
- a calculator
- a metronome
- a kitchen timer
- a portable games console
- a walkie-talkie
- a TV remote control
- a camera
- a video camera
- a spirit level
- a flashlight
- an alarm clock
- …and so on
Having a range of technology in one device opens up possibilities. For example, the N900's camera can be used in ways which a standalone camera cannot. You can take a photo, have its location automatically determined by the GPS and added to the image file, have that location sent through the phone to a website that translates the GPS co-ordinates to the name of a location (such as “Paris, Eiffel Tower“), have the photo tagged with that location then uploaded to a site such as Flickr.
Although converged devices can be convenient, the convergence has some downsides. Each individual component may not be as sophisticated as a standalone device. For example, the camera in a cellphone is unlikely to be as good as a dedicated standalone camera (although it will be “good enough” for many of its users). A converged device is a single point of failure: if the device breaks or is lost, all of its functionality is unavailable. And with the rapid development of technology, a convergence device may need to be replaced in order to upgrade one of its components, even when the rest are still adequate.
For many users, the biggest potential downside of a converged device arises because it is so powerful. Being such a useful device, it will be heavily used. Unfortunately, battery technology has not advanced so rapidly as device technology, and a flat battery is likely to be a frequent annoyance for anyone who uses a converged device to its fullest potential.
The path of convergence still has a long way to go, and we can expect to see much more development of multi-function integrated devices in the coming years.
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