- December 4, 2016
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A Case for Single-Purpose Devices
Two truisms seem to be happening right now with technology:
- Every activity that can be made digital will be.I don’t have to physically adjust my thermostat, it’s controlled by a computer.
- Every activity that can be made digital will be put on a multi-purpose (or “convergent”) device as an app.I don’t need an alarm clock, I’ve got an alarm on my mobile phone. This phenomenon is starting to be labeled “ephemeralization.”
Where then does this leave single-purpose, single-function devices? Are they to vanish into history? Some certainly will. For example, cameras, MP3 players, and video cameras are taking a beating from mobile phones. But I believe there is still a place for single-function devices, under specific circumstances.
A single-function device (an “appliance” as Mike Kuniavsky calls them, vs. a multi-function “terminal”) makes sense when:
- It can do more/is more powerful than similar functionality in a terminal.You won’t find professional photographers using Android phones to take wedding pictures, for instance. The power and control of an object designed to just be a camera outweighs any inconvenience of carrying around a specialty object to take pictures.
- The physical activity the appliance engenders cannot be replicated digitally.In other words, an iPad isn’t going to substitute for your dishwasher.
- The integration of hardware and software is key.A variation on not being able to be replicated digitally, some activities are simply easier when there are physical controls. It is still easier to type on a physical keyboard than it is on a touchscreen one.
- It is prohibitively expensive or dangerous to make the activity digital.In theory, I could make an iPhone app to drive my car, but I think government agencies might have something to say about that.
- There are a few billion people out there without a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.If your target base isn’t likely to have an expensive terminal device, an app on one isn’t going to work for them.
- The device has to be stationary.Some devices have to be hooked into the systems of a location (plumbing, electricity, gas, water, etc.) to work. Likewise, some sensor-driven devices only work (or only work well) if they are calibrated for a certain space. For instance, Microsoft Kinect.
- The form factor of any terminal device doesn’t match the activity.My $500 non-waterproof iPad isn’t the object I want to take on a scuba-diving trip.
Now I grant you some of these items are conditional—perhaps in the future the cameras in multi-use devices will be as good as professional ones. Even so, I feel there is always going to be a place for beautiful objects that one do one thing—but only if the integration of hardware and software is such that it makes accomplishing the task so much easier/more efficient/more fun than a multipurpose device would. That’s the challenge: how to differentiate your single-purpose device so that consumers will buy it instead of (or in addition to) an app that does the same thing. Designers have to not only explain why you’d want to own the chef’s knife instead of a Swiss Army knife, but also make the specialty item worth owning. That’s the challenge.