iPads, iPods and the Search for an All-in-One Machine

Technologies are converging, but we'll always need a small device to talk and wider screen to read and write

One of the most irresistibly provocative tropes in tech journalism is to claim that one technology "kills/is the end of/portends the swift yet painful death of" another similar piece of technology. Will Hulu Kill TV? Will Bing Destroy Google? Will Snow Leopard Defenestrate Windows? It is so irresistible that I have hardly resisted it myself. In reality, the world of gadgets, devices and doohickeys is not a gladiatorial showdown where only one fighter emerges with his head, but I suppose it's fun and engaging to pretend our local Radio Shack is modern day Colosseum.

Anyway, that's my long windup to the pitch: Over at the Atlantic's wonderful new Culture Channel I read this piece by Sam Machkovech about the Death of the iPod. Big statement! Love it. Let's assess:

January 24th's much-ballyhooed iPad event was the first iPod funeral. At that reveal, candy-colored silhouettes didn't dance around the screen using the iPad's touted features, like eBooks, new Apps, or screen-filling touch keyboards. In fact, rarely did the event show any once-iconic earbuds in use. Apple, quite visibly, had moved on from the iPod.

Music consumption lays forever changed in the iPod's wake; no 8-year storm could have so much impact again, especially since its biggest result is that every pocket-sized device now comes with MP3 playback. The idea of holding a cell phone in one hand and a music player in the other will become an antiquated laugh soon enough. With that smug knowledge, Apple blows forward to do the same thing with everything else we consume--whittling down our books, movies, and apps into puzzle pieces that bounce out of order when we drag our fingers across touch screens.

So the iPad kills the iPod? I don't think that's exactly right. This hails back to a bloggy debate I had with Jim Fallows about the dawning of an all-in-one device. I argued that the Swiss Army Knife-ification of technology was already underway. Jim countered that the all-in-one revolution that was seemingly always "underway," but never imminent, much less present. "Sure, some things will be combined," he wrote, "but the all in one era is not at hand, and won't be."

My conclusion was slightly different than Machkovech. In some ways the all-in-one era is basically here. Smart phones come extremely close to performing the functions of a phone, entertainment device and computer. But here's where Jim is right: no all-in-one machine will ever be superior -- or even acceptable -- at performing all its functions. Our phones need to fit in our pockets. But to enjoy a richly rendered movie or read an article comfortably, you need a larger screen that won't fit in your pocket. I like to say the iPhone is the modern day Swiss Army Knife, for a good reason and a bad reason. The good is that, like the SAK, it's marvelously multifaceted. The bad is that, also like the SAK, it's not the best device for performing many of its functions. Reading on iPhones is doable, but not ideal. Watching video on a 3-inch screen: doable, not ideal. Typing longer notes on a touchpad thinner than your hand: doable, not ideal.

The iPhone (and other smart phones like the Android Eris, which I just bought and love) is an amazing instrument and quite nearly an all-in-one device. But it's not an acceptable computer. The iPad could be an amazing instrument and quite nearly an all-in-one device. But it won't fit in your pocket ... unless we radically redesign jeans. Even if the all-in-one era is technically in hand, nobody's going to look down at the device in their hands, and say they have The One for all functions.