Home Convergence vs. Specialization: Which Will Win Out?

Convergence vs. Specialization: Which Will Win Out?

One of the enduring themes of technology is convergence, when different products evolve to do similar tasks. The smartphone is the prime example of convergence in this era, bringing together voice and data (web) applications. Plus, in recent times, high quality photography and video.

However, we’ve entered an age where we have multiple Internet-connected devices within our grasp. Many of these are specialist devices, such as the Kindle and Xbox. We’ll see many more examples soon, as specialist household objects such as toasters and fridges get connected to the Internet. So, does that mean specialization will win out over convergence? That’s what Kevin Kelly argues in his latest book What Technology Wants. But many technologists still believe in convergence.

Kelly writes on page 294 of his book that “as we look into the future, specialization will continue to increase.” He notes that currently, convergence reigns:

“At the moment computers seem to be headed in the opposite direction. They seem to becoming evermore general purpose machines, as they swallow more and more functions. […] This convergence is amplified by cloud computing, where the actual work is done on the net as a whole, and the tool at hand merely becomes a portal to the work.”

However, he goes on to argue that specialization will eventually be the rule:

“This convergence is temporary. We are still in the early stages of computerization – or rather intelligenation. […] Silly as it now sounds, we will put artificial intelligence into hammers, dental picks, fork lifts, stethoscopes, and frying pans. All these tools will gain new powers by sharing the universal intelligence of the network. But as their newly augmented roles become clear, the tools will specialize. We can see the first glimmers in the iPhone, Kindle, Wii, and netbooks.”

Kelly concludes:

“Technology is born in generality and grows to specificity. Technology wants specialization.”

It’s a good argument, but I’m not sure it’s completely true. While a hammer is certainly going to remain a specialist tool, how about a tool like an eReader? Kelly actually names the Kindle as a device that specializes. That it does. However I’d suggest that the Kindle is a likely contender for extinction, because of convergence.

Nobody would argue that the multi-functional iPad of 2011 is a better eReader than the specialist Kindle device. The Kindle is clearly superior. It’s lighter and also you can read your Kindle outside, whereas the iPad screen has glare issues in sunlight. But over time, it’s possible that the iPad – and other tablets – will evolve good enough eReader functionality that they force specialist eReaders into extinction.

In other words: with reading, technology may actually want convergence.

You can see glimpses of that kind of convergence happening with smartphones and consumer cameras. The Flip video camera has already declared itself obsolete, due to the smartphone.

Convergence will also happen in reverse though, albeit on a smaller scale. The future camera device we explored last week might make the smartphone an unneeded device for some people. For a certain segment of the population – professional photographers and passionate photography hobbyists – the ‘smart camera’ will do the job of both camera and phone. That won’t make the smartphone extinct, by any means – but it is a form of convergence that will survive.

What do you think, will specialization win out over convergence? Or will there still be a place for convergence, as I have argued.

Photo credit: David Reber’s Hammer Photography

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