Technological Convergences

Convergences happen in all different ways. They happen in books or book series, where a good author can plan to have plotlines converge in a specific time and place. In the case of the series I just finished, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the author was able to get two totally unrelated characters meet in really unexpected ways. It happens in films too, Crash and 21 Grams are two great examples of this. This happens in technology as well. Most of the time, we as consumers never even see it happening. When we look back though we realize it was incredibly obvious that it would happen. Two great examples of this happened with cell phones.

MP3 players have been wildly popular since they came out in the late 90’s. Napster and easy to rip CD’s made them incredibly useful and provided hours of great listening. Around the same time cell phones were becoming smaller and more popular. No unexpectedly, phone manufacturers decided that it would be useful to put a music player onto the phone. These were clunky and really only used when people didn’t have a better MP3 player. Apple had created a great MP3 player and realized, like the phone manufacturers that users only wanted to carry one of these devices. This is one of the reasons that drove them to make the iPhone. Great interface and good music experience. At this point they already had the music infrastructure and the loyal fan base to be sure of a high number of sales.

Around the same time as the MP3 boom businessmen were starting to use Portable Digital Assistants (PDA). This was a replacement to the calendar and phone book. It also provided a few applications that allowed some work on documents. It could also be used to schedule emails when the PDA was synced with the computer. It was obvious that this would be a great device to connect to some sort of network aside from plugging it in. Blackberry used to make two way pagers and figured out a way to send emails and other useful data over the pager network. This was one of the earliest smart phones. Eventually Microsoft and Palm got into the phone manufacturing game for the same reason. People didn’t want to carry two device a PDA and a phone. If you put them both together you’d have a better product and would sell more.

These two technologies converged on a similar product, smart phones. Both types of phones had a very different set of users initially. However, since the iPhone there has been a further convergence of these phones into general purpose phones. Blackberry, while still catering to the business side, is shifting to compete directly with the iPhone because business users want the apps that the iPhone has. Palm has vanished from the market being unable to compete and Android has appeared as the first PC based OS. Android is a distribution of Linux, it doesn’t run well on PCs but MS and Apple are moving in a direction of merging mobile OSes and PC OSes (sure it’s a Mac, but it uses Intel so there’s no different besides the OS).

If we look back at these convergences, aside from new competitors and firm failure, they appear to be pretty obvious. Why wouldn’t these companies move into these market spaces? I’ll discuss some of that in my next blog.

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