Closing In: The Truly Convergent Device

For those of us who have been in the technology business for decades, the excitement is palpable. Those who are younger and who therefore have a much shorter frame of reference are also excited, but they can’t begin to appreciate the sense of“fullness of time” that many of us feel. Innovation, miniaturization, broadband wireless, and many other factors have carried us here. I will confess I had lost hope that we would ever be here. But, the technological equivalent of the“Holy Grail” is now close at hand. What is the development that commands such anticipation? It is the truly convergent device — a system that will finally “do it all” and make it possible to carry only one mobile device.

Such a device has been discussed for years, with the first serious discussion probably dating back to the Nokia “Brick” in the 1990s. In the years since, evolution has moved along at a steady pace, if a frustratingly slow one. With the Blackberry, cell phones came to have personal digital assistant (PDA) capabilities. Web browsing was added, and eventually, wireless broadband by the major carriers made browsing actually practical. At the same time, Palm, which once owned the PDA market, predictably lost ground to Microsoft’s PocketPC strategy. Digital cameras became popular, as did MP3 players for portable audio. Portable video players appeared. The tablet PC made it possible to record digital ink through the use of an interactive screen. And through it all, devices were getting ever smaller, faster, and more functional. In the last few years, the focus has been fully on convergence — the combining of as many functions as possible in the fewest number of devices. Today, that goal is finally in sight.

Devices like the Palm Treo 750, T-Mobile Dash, HTC 8525, HP 6945, and others have combined wireless broadband for phone and data with a range of other capabilities. These fully equipped devices make it possible to leave the MP3 player, video player, digital camera, video games, PDA, and even GPS at home. Not long ago, the capability of these glorified cell phones was so rudimentary that most of us still carried a cadre of dedicated devices. Not anymore. The market has shifted radically. Palm has been largely displaced by Windows Mobile, Blackberry is under siege, and Dell recently announced the end of the Axim — widely regarded as one of the best handheld PCs available. Devices that can do everything own the future, and the market reflects that fact. Apple’s recent announcement of the iPhone certainly speaks to this reality, though not effectively.

A significant development in the evolution of convergent devices was Microsoft’s push into “smartphone” technology. Early versions of their cell phone software were very weak. But Microsoft ported Windows Mobile technology to cell phones and supported it with an exceptional messaging server in Exchange. The result was a highly capable handheld computer that could also function as a phone. The Palm Treo 750 is an example of this. A large number of strong third-party software packages are available for the new Windows Mobile 6 operating system, which is becoming a juggernaut in the move toward convergence. Devices based on this system also offer a range of options and supporting devices connected by Bluetooth such as headsets, stereo headphones, and foldable keyboards.

Systems now being released are closer than ever to the fully convergent device. The Samsung i760 is a highly capable phone and Internet device with Wi-Fi. Samsung makes a great device that is typically not released until the technology is mature. The device also has a slide-out keyboard and accesses to broadband networks for browsing and data transfer. With Windows Mobile 6, devices like the i760 run versions of the Microsoft Office Suite including Word and Excel. The new Samsung G900 is similar, but will accept high capacity data cards that will store gigabytes. With a high-resolution, 800x460 touch-screen display, this device has “video player” written all over it. This unit offers a plethora of other capabilities, including a biometric scanner for increased security.

One of the most exciting developments is from a company called HTC. In the past, HTC manufactured devices branded for other companies. Today, HTC has become a powerhouse in innovative systems now sold under its own brand. The HTC x7500 will feature a 5-in. touch-screen, 624MHz Intel processor, internal hard drive, keyboard, two cameras, internal GPS, and numerous other features. For the first time, a device that evolved from a cell phone ancestor will provide a reasonable alternative for a laptop. Convergence is most certainly in sight.

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Resources and CIO at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He can be reached at 513/745-2985 or [email protected]

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or [email protected]