Digital Convergence

I’ve always hated mobile phones. Really, I just generally dislike talking on the phone period. At least with a normal phone, however, I can get up and leave. Mobile phones take that annoyance with you all day. Crumbling to the pressure of my employer, I finally broke down and got a mobile phone. I opted for a relatively simple LG flip phone. It had a nice vibrate feature so I could leave it on during classes, and it has an address book for my most called numbers, which is really all I need. And I get my freedom by simply leaving it plugged in at home most of the time… but don’t tell my boss that. All in all, it does what I need, and nothing more. However, this trend of devices that “do everything” is extending into the world of mobile phones. I had long been aware of phones with simple games, which can actually be a nice time-killer when sitting in a waiting room.

The latest slew of phones, however, take the idea of time-killer to a new level. Looking at my brother’s new mobile phone frankly scared me. To place a call on my phone from the address book, one flips it open, selects “Book,” chooses the person and hits send. Fairly straightforward. On my brother’s phone, a backlit color screen with a small menu of less than descriptive icons greets us. I’m usually pretty quick to pick up on how a system works; yet, with this phone, after 10 minutes of pressing buttons and deciphering hieroglyphics, I still had no idea how to get to the address book. I had, though, managed to nearly connect to the internet (which is a pay per use service, and not something I had intended to use), started a hi-resolution (for a phone, mind you) game of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and changed the ring volume about 14 times. It took my brother another 10 minutes of reading the manual to figure it out. My other brother recently informed me that he had replaced his phone with a combination PDA/Mobile Phone. That’s right… as though the other brother’s phone wasn’t complex enough, now I have to digest the thought of an even more complex phone, one that not only shows spreadsheets and sends email, but also plays MP3s!

Is all this convergence completely necessary? Do I really need a phone that can surf the web? Do I need one of Microsoft’s MSN Direct SmartWatches, where I can “view appointments, holidays, cultural events, and entertainment options wherever [I am], at the flick of [my] wrist” (Microsoft)? Isn’t this just making things unnecessarily complex? In a trailer I saw for one of the “Spy Kids” movies (don’t get me started on that series of films), one of the lead characters is equipped with a watch that could call headquarters, tell him exactly where he was on the earth, watch movies, etc. The character then asked how to tell the time with it. Apparently they didn’t have enough room to include that feature on his watch.

Some people would say that they need all these features. Some actually do, I would imagine. A busy businessperson with poor organizational skills could really used a phone that reminded them of appointments. Construction contractors could really use a phone with a camera, to send photos of a job site back to their shop, and thus expediting their work. Still, the last time I checked, camera phones are marketed to the “buy anything” consumerist youth of the world, showing how they can send goofy snapshots and sound bytes to friends in different locales. Do they need such phones? Absolutely not. In fact, these phones have been banned in numerous places around the world, from gyms worried about their customer’s privacy, to bookstores trying to defend their shops from “digital shoplifting” (Ito).

In the end it comes down to accepting the fact that, like it or not, the converging of devices (and the altogether obfuscating of them) will continue unabated as long as people keep buying. The technology corporation that doesn’t add the latest features to its products won’t be a corporation much longer. People seem to always fall for the “WOW!” factor over simplicity or reliability, with the average mobile phone’s lifespan of 18 months, and most computers only fairing slightly better (Heikkila). Do we really need all these gadgets and gizmos? Of course we don’t. Life without them, however, despite being perhaps a bit less frustrating, would simply be too boring for most people. I guess we all need little “WOW!” in our life, don’t we?