When it comes to devices and getting stuff done, we all agree that different form factors suit better different kinds of tasks. For example, if you are editing video or coding, you might want a laptop, but if you are responding to email on the go a smartphone is your best allied.
For this reason we have desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, wearables... Because the sole fact that each one is better than its siblings at performing some tasks, justifies its existence. But it's also certain that despite syncing between devices it has become a lot easier than it used to be, having multiple devices can add an undesired level of complexity to your daily life.
This leads us to the idea of: what if, we could have just one device that fits all the situations better than this task-specific device: the ultimate device. A device that we use for everything and it would always be the best choice, how it would be?
We've already seen several approaches to the matter, but unfortunately none has gained enough traction in the market to be considered at least relevant. There are mainly two ways manufacturers approach this issue, one is modularity and the other convergence.
The modular approach always involves some pieces that add up and together build a better experience than the sum of the individual parts. It usually involves a small form factor (like a smartphone) that you can dock into other places in order to extend its capabilities.
Each day we have more and more computing power in our mobile devices, so it makes sense to tap this power and use it in other places. Several examples come to mind:
Ubuntu for Android. This approach is really clever, it goes by: you've got your smartphone which already runs a powerful processor, so plug it in a dock attached to a desktop and you'll get the full version of the OS in the bigger screen. Makes total sense: you get rid of a device and you take advantage of the power you already have in your phone, great!
But, however, this approach is a huge challenge from a software standpoint, because apps have to be written in a way that they can mutate in order to fit the form factor you intend to use. So when you dock it in the desktop station, you may want to use it with a higher level of abstraction, through a mouse or a trackpad, and this implies an absolutely different approach when it comes to interaction.
Power management can also be a problem. When you are on mobile, you want your device to be efficient, so the battery lasts and you won't find yourself looking for a plug in a wall. But once docked, you want the device to use all the resources available. Managing these transitions and how the apps behave depending on the use case can be challenging.
Another great example is the Asus PadFone. It's modularity at its best and it also makes a lot of sense. The value proposition goes with something like: if your phone and your tablet have the exact same components (same processor, same camera, same OS...) and the only difference is the form factor, why not just use the little device and plug it into a dumb display with the desired form factor. Brilliant.
Asus also went a little further and tried to extend the smartphone capabilities through the "dumb display" by adding better audio and bigger battery into the pad. At 2014 CES it also tried to merge the concepts tablet and laptop with the line Transformer Pad, but I think this one is not as clever as the PadFone.
The same way, I remember several years ago Sony Vaio had a docking station that not only extended their ports capabilities, but also provided a better graphic card to the unit when docked. Again, same concept, extent capabilities just when you need them, use fewer devices and get the most of them.
Another way to approach the ultimate device problem is by creating hybrids that exist between categories. The most relevant example: the phablet. The problem that tries to solve is somehow similar to the PadFone example, but in this particular case, the approach to the solution is radically different.
Instead of modularity, phablet devices are built to get the best of each form factor into a single device. The idea is great, I mean, a device with a bigger screen, but not too much, so you can still carry it around in your pocket. Although I liked the idea, I've personally owned a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and it wasn't great. The best of both worlds approach, turned out to be the worst of them. So it wasn't mobile enough to fit into my pocket and yet not big enough to watch a movie or read an ebook.
Other merges that come to mind are the Yota Phones. These devices try to get the most of the e-reading display in combination with the common LCD. The idea is great, same as the phablet, but the outcome... I really don't know.
The curious thing is how manufacturers try to capitalise on this concept, but they go in different directions. Ones try to merge the concept smartphone and tablet, others smartphone and desktop and even tablet and laptop, with the best example being the Microsoft Surface.
All these concepts are great, I love them all and I'm convinced that this merge will eventually happen. It's a matter of time, same thing happened to the walkman, the alarm clock or the digital camera, but maybe it's not the right time just yet.
Although the value proposition for those devices makes a lot of sense and the outcomes are really clever, ultimately they might be missing the bigger picture. Because the war might not just be about replacing devices, instead, it might be more related to the context we are. Moreover, this theory is gaining traction by its own with the IoT.
Last month, Apple introduced lots of features at WWDC, but one of them (well a few of them, but for the sake of the argument just focus on this one) was clearly pointing in this direction: Continuity. Apple is not buying this modular trend. Maybe because Apple focuses so much on giving a clear answer to a certain problem and the better way to do that is by having the best experience for each situation. Or maybe just because it want to sell more devices. Anyway, its vision of all this is using the device the best accomplishes a certain task. So no phablets, no modular pieces, if you need a tablet, just use a tablet. Which also makes a lot of sense.
But some questions arise when you have multiple devices, because you use them indisctintively and you want the transition to be smooth as possible. This is one of the tradeoffs of having multiple devices. But Apple is addressing this issue in a really clever way.
From their position they can't transfer the device, because they have one for each purpose, so instead, they transfer the state. This is just the first attempt to the matter and it's truly innovative. The devices are able to "sense" each other and understand these transitions so you can pick up on whatever you were working from one to another without even notice.
Again, Apple is not releasing features because we can do "more" stuff. They really thought about what problems could imply their way to address a multi-device environment and gave a clear and direct answer to that. They looked for the problem and then figured out a good solution, not the other way around.
So, until we are not able to deliver a device that can perform the best on several spaces (and for sure this time hasn't arrived, yet) Continuity seems to me a great approach to managing data flows in a multi-device environment.