Does the device matter?

The action right now is in devices. They’ve driven Apple to prime spot: the biggest corporation in the world. Microsoft has built its own tablet. The declines of RIM and Nokia make headlines.

But for how long is the device going to drive technology innovation?

For sure, Apple pushed things to a new level with the iPhone. The iPad went further again. So Apple’s taken the margins that, deservedly, come with a little innovation and a well-crafted user interface. But how much further is there to go?

Not too much further, I think.  Sure, there’s still scope to improve devices. And there’s plenty of scope for new apps. But I think the really interesting stuff is going to start happening in multi-device interactions.

For example, how many SIM cards do you have?

Whenever I ask this question at conferences or workshops, the answers generally average out at about three SIMs per person. We all have a phone. Most have a tablet. The odd 3G dongle. It’s not uncommon to find someone with five or more SIMs that they carry about everywhere. If that’s a Subscriber Identity Module, then we’ve all become schizophrenic.

This is just the start. A few years ago, only futurologists talked about “internet of things”. Now a bunch of companies have it on their product roadmaps. They’re talking seriously about things like:

  • Multi-device calls. Start a conversation in the car. Switch to your mobile when you get home. Switch again to the landline when you get indoors. No fiddling with controls – it all happens seamlessly as the devices negotiate together.
  • Shared viewing. People in several different locations all watch the same TV programme, using their tablets or phones to chat, share web pages, etc. A social experience where more devices are talking together than people.
  • Shared presence.  A team works from multiple sites, sharing screens, drawing on joint whiteboards, exchanging files, all as if they’re in the same room. (Not at all futuristic – I’ve seen development teams get pretty close to this already.)
  • Health data monitoring. Someone uses an array of sensors to capture their heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, ECG and whatever other bodily data they’re interested in. They store it to the cloud, analyse it, visualise it, compare it to other people’s data and patterns. Since each sensor is an independently connected device, this can require a dozen or more devices to interact together.
  • Interactive home. All those scenarios about controlling the air-conditioning from your mobile phone? They’re in the product pipeline now.

So why does my smartphone regularly screw up my laptop’s calendar as it synchs? Why do I carry a half-dozen different cables to get different devices to connect to each other? Why are most early adopters of the cloud now struggling with silos of non-integrated data?

Because the device manufacturers still mostly see their devices as independent islands, centres of their own universes. Sure, synchronisation is a tough problem.  But it’s not made any easier by treating it as an afterthought. Switch and start to see it as the entry point to a host of more interesting, multi-device interactions, and suddenly a new world opens up.

That’s where I think things are going to go. Innovation is going to shift to focus on interaction between multiple devices.

Of course, this will throw up challenges for organisations as they interact with those devices’ owners. For example:

  • How do we build a coherent experience when the device (with its characteristics such as screen size and form factor) may change midway through any interaction?
  • How do we maintain transactional integrity when we can no longer tie a session to a single device?
  • How do we track customers when their “identity” changes during the course of an interaction?
  • How do we create experiences that make sense when no device is the centre of attention?  When each device is peripheral, a small part of a wider set of multi-device interactions, then how do we integrate its contribution into the wider whole?

Get it right, and we can engage in extended, meaningful conversations with customers. Get it wrong, and we’ll be helping to build an unpleasant cacophony that will simply chase customers away,

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