Devices versus Technology

A cou­ple of months ago, Google announced that Android 2.0 (their mobile oper­at­ing sys­tem) will include a maps nav­i­ga­tion ser­vice which will pro­vide turn-by-turn dri­ving direc­tions. This news was cred­it­ed for dri­ving down the stock price of nav­i­ga­tion device man­u­fac­tur­ers Mag­ellen and Garmin.

But real­ly, this should real­ly come as no sur­prise. GPS was once so bulky and expen­sive of a tech­nol­o­gy that it’s inclu­sion war­rant­ed an entire device be built around it. Now, I get GPS along with WiFi and gigyabytes of stor­age in some­thing the size of a quar­ter in my Eye­Fi cam­era card1. As the cost of a tech­nol­o­gy like GPS, accelerom­e­ters, cam­eras, or WiFi approach­es free, the uses for it will increase expo­nen­tial­ly. Where it once was odd to include WiFi in a sta­tion­ary device (an iMac or the Wii, for instance) which could be hard­wired, cheap WiFi hard­ware does away with the need to run wires. Blue­tooth does essen­tial­ly the same thing, only with far less range and band­width. But, I think that the sin­gle best thing about this sort of device con­sol­i­da­tion is the new uses that hav­ing essen­tial­ly free hard­ware allows. Uses that we real­ly can’t quite grasp until the tech is cheap enough to unleash them.

Even now, it may seem odd to think of GPS being includ­ed in to what is essen­tial­ly a sta­tion­ary device — like a desk­top PC — but it once the cost of GPS is near­ly zero, then it’s inclu­sion is inevitable. Includ­ing GPS allows a device to sud­den­ly know where it is and that can be handy infor­ma­tion; even if that does­n’t change very often. Why should it be eas­i­er to pull out your phone quick­ly get a map of what lunch places are around the office when you’re sit­ting at a desk­top com­put­er? Or insert the need for loca­tion for any oth­er web­site of pro­gram you use on any giv­en day2 Data stor­age is cheap. GPS is cheap. The rea­sons for hav­ing a ded­i­cat­ed GPS device are rapid­ly approach­ing zero, which is what both my wife and I have tried to explain to any­one who men­tioned we should get a car GPS.

So, I posit the fol­low­ing: When the cost of the tech­nol­o­gy behind a device drops below a cer­tain thresh­old, that device will become obso­lete in favor or oth­er com­mon devices which can co-op that tech­nol­o­gy to greater effect. Let’s call it Cole­man’s law until some­one else shows me some­one else pre­vi­ous­ly said it or some­thing sim­i­lar3.

You might argue: what about a device like the Kin­dle that uses cel­lu­lar net­works to com­mu­ni­cate? E‑readers sure­ly won’t replace cell phones, will they? No, but I can’t help but shake the feel­ing that cell phones are des­tined to replace e‑readers. And this com­ing from a guy who would love to have an e‑ink dis­play read­er, him­self.

Anoth­er argu­ment against device con­sol­i­da­tion is that gen­er­al pur­pose devices (like a cell phone4) just can’t do any one of those things as well as a spe­cial pur­pose device; and sure­ly that’s true. How­ev­er, I nev­er hear any­one com­plain that their low-bud­get GPS device does­n’t work as well as a high-end map­ping sys­tem by Trim­ble used for con­struc­tion. Nor do I real­ly think most peo­ple care that the qual­i­ty of video on YouTube does­n’t rival that shot on a RED cam­era. As a mat­ter of fact, I doubt most peo­ple even know who Trim­ble or RED are. So does it real­ly mat­ter if your cell phone does­n’t shoot the same kind of pho­tos or video as a fan­cy DSLR? My answer is no. The enthu­si­asts who real­ly want that kind of qual­i­ty will con­tin­ue to use those device but the major­i­ty of peo­ple are tak­ing pho­tos for high-qual­i­ty but rather because any pho­to is bet­ter than los­ing the moment.

  1. Tru­ly, the Eye­Fi card is sim­ply amaz­ing. It is the first bit of tech I’ve had in a long time that real­ly seems clos­er to mag­ic than to sci­ence. []
  2. Of course, cell tow­er tri­an­gu­la­tion or IP address­es can be used as rea­son­able sub­sti­tutes for GPS tech­nol­o­gy, but the falling cost of GPS with respect to its accu­ra­cy makes it the log­i­cal option in almost any device, now. []
  3. Though pos­si­bly an exten­sion of Moore’s law, they are not real­ly the same thing. []
  4. I’m not using the phrase “smart phone” here as I sim­ply now con­sid­er non-smart phones to sim­ply be last-gen­er­a­tion phones. []

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