Combine, separate or connect?

April 13, 2015

A camera phone walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

In the late 1980s, yes, it was a joke. Now the laugh is on us and it’s assumed that all phones have cameras. In fact, not since the combination of peanut butter and jelly has there been such a wonderful combination. However, combining technologies doesn’t work for everything. To wit, the GPS: it has a video display, a speaker and an SD card slot. So it’s already got everything it needs to also be a picture viewer and an MP3 player. But have you ever rocked out to your GPS? Or used it to show someone pictures of your vacation? Not to mention that smartphones appear to have all but replaced stand-alone GPS receivers…

Anyway, cameras are in every phone and they have naturally sprouted up on tablets, too, in part because their enormous displays make great viewfinders and displays. Some cameras have GPS so that you can locate exactly where you took that picture of that butterfly on the tree stump by the thing that one day. And these days everybody knows you can’t spell smartphone without ‘GPS’.

But really good cameras have large lenses and really good GPS have largish antennas (and powerful specialized processors). Smartphones are thin – not the same shape as camera lenses or GPS antennas – so we compromise a bit on quality when we pack them all together in a phone. It would have been easier to put cell phones into digital cameras back in the 90’s, but no one wanted a phone that big. Plus, we would have looked dumb talking into a camera – way dumber than talking into a glass and metal graham cracker.

It’s a technological love triangle: The phone loves the camera but isn’t quite ready for it to move in with a big lens. The camera likes to have the GPS around sometimes, but only until it’s a drain on the battery. The GPS wants to hook up with the phone for its display, which works out pretty well for the phone, as long as it has enough battery and a big data plan. And the camera likes the phone, but doesn’t love it. Mostly it just wants to use the free WiFi.

Portable computers are experiencing a slightly different phenomena. It used to be a scientific fact that all computers had physical keyboards, but now touchscreens have made the world all topsy-turvy. On top of that, we can't decide if our laptops should have touchscreens (so they can act like tablets) or if our tablets should have detachable keyboards (so they can act like laptops). Tablets without keyboards are hard to type on for longer than about eight seconds and detachable keyboards are a logistical nuisance. In any case, if you don’t have a solid surface to type on, it’s like having to choose between riding a Pegasus, a dragon or a griffin – which awkward, magical thing do you want to use all the way to Cleveland?

Hewlett-Packard has gone completely off the reservation with their Sprout desktop computer. They have, in essence, said, “Y’know what? This thing is gonna have a touchscreen and a bunch of cameras and sensors on it. And a video projector! And you’ll type on a touch-sensitive rubber mat that has the image of a keyboard projected onto it. You can use the touchscreen to do other stuff, but not to type; that would be silly. If you put an object on the placemat-projector-keyboard-zone it will instantly teleport it to the cloud. (Careful with children and pets – they’re never quite the same after you teleport them.) When you use this thing, you’re going to feel like a computer genius, a holographic avatar, a cyborg. Unfortunately, there’s no way to scan your butt like a copy machine: we had to give that up for the cloud-teleportation thingy. Time will tell if this particular combination is successful. I have a feeling that the fact that it’s a desktop may influence Sprout’s outcome more than its novel arrangement of technologies.

Even just connecting two independently useful things isn’t a simple equation for success.

Even just connecting two independently useful things isn’t a simple equation for success. My wife and I were shopping for a new clothes washing machine a while ago and the nice person helping us excitedly pointed out a washer that, if it stopped working, could download the error code to my smartphone. It rather put me off. They may as well have told me that it came with a tourniquet – y’know, just in case it maimed me during the spin cycle. Companies are experimenting a lot more with new connected products; connecting everything to everything else via the Internet of Every Single Blessed Thing on Earth (or in Low Earth Orbit). I’m very hopeful that some serious thought and insight will yield more than a clothes washer that spams my inbox with fashion advice, or a refrigerator that stocks itself with Greek yogurt because my toilet told it that I need more probiotics. I don’t even like Greek yogurt…

So, what to make of all this?

GPS is only useful if the satellites can see it. Cameras are most useful if the Internet can see them. Smartphones are only useful if we can take them everywhere, because portability and connectivity is what makes the rest of the features meaningful and useful. In turn, smartphones only draw in other technologies that can be made to fit inside and don’t drain their batteries too quickly. Keyboards are most useful when we need to communicate deeply. Touchscreens are most useful when we want to navigate or manipulate efficiently.

Combining, separating or connecting any of these things doesn’t automatically make the resulting device better. A device that has clarity of purpose in realistic contexts and possesses a certain completeness does. Smartphones have achieved this; laptops and tablets are on their way. Everything else is going to need a lot more time.