Is the Single-Function Device Doomed?

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I get the value proposition--how useful and space-efficient it is to own a single device that can function as a phone, a messaging appliance, a browser, a camera, a videocam, an e-reader, an MP3 player, a GPS unit, a tape recorder, a stopwatch, and so on. Today's smartphone is the last word in convergence devices, the electronic equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife before you've misplaced the tweezers and toothpick.

As if to underscore our headlong dash down the road toward all-in-oneness, Cisco last week suddenly (and rather stunningly) announced its decision to pull the plug on the Flip videocam--the category-defining handheld that launched a million YouTube videos.

Any chance we could put on the brakes? While do-it-all devices can be great, sometimes they don't do anything especially competently. And so I hope we don't see the death of all of the exceptional devices that are dedicated to doing a single job really, really well.

Before you accuse me of hopeless fuddy-duddyism, let me make it clear that I'm not slagging smartphones. I'd feel naked without my Droid Incredible. When I don't have something better on hand, I routinely use it for quickie videos, pics, gaming, you name it. But for most activities beyond making phone calls, it's a second-class citizen--a highly compromised alternative to dedicated devices that do a better job.

When One Is Enough

About those alternatives: For e-mail, I continue to carry a BlackBerry--still the best portable e-mail appliance ever created. For making phone calls, it can't match my Android phone, so I seldom use it for that purpose. But I'm willing to lug the extra item around just to ensure that I can handle the daily e-mail barrage as effectively as possible.

The Kindle and its e-reader kin really can't be beat for reading digital books. E-ink technology is far superior to an LCD screen for displaying gray-scale text, unless you're satisfied with graininess and substandard text rendering. One thing I admire about the iPhone 4 is its retina display--which actually does a great job of displaying the printed word--but even so, I find the small screen too cramped to permit a truly pleasurable reading experience.

For listening to music on the go, I rely on an old iPod. I have a few MP3s on my smartphone and I've occasionally streamed Pandora on it as well. But because the phone performs a host of background functions and sports a lovely color screen, it can't approach the battery life that my dumb, just-do-one-thing iPod delivers. So I avoid playing music on my phone because I want to make sure that it has enough juice to make and receive phone calls when necessary. As a bonus, my iPod carries 56GB of tasty tunes, far more than could fit on my phone's MicroSD card.

Cameras and videocams are perhaps the most threatened of the single-function devices. Today's phones, equipped with integrated 8-megapixel cameras and specced to handle HD video, are supremely convenient--lightweight and always on hand. Yet for all the impressive-sounding specs they offer, they still take crappy pictures in anything less than ideal lighting. An SLR or decent point-and-shoot camera produces substantially better images. It seems a shame that many people will be capturing their most precious memories on their phone's inferior camera.

Then there's that old standby, the wristwatch. Many of my colleagues, especially those under 35, simply don't own one. When they want to know the time, they dig into a pocket and extract a phone. That's great until they're sitting in a seemingly interminable meeting and want to know, discreetly of course, how much more they'll need to endure. I can do the indiscernible sleeve-tug wrist-roll move to get a time report. My watch-free buddies have to suffer in silence.

Might I recommend a watch to go with that smartphone?

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