Diminishing differentiation: Are all our gadgets making each other redundant?

There sure are a lot of gadgets around. Consumers today own laptops, desktops, tablets, televisions, e-readers, smartphones, smartwatches, smart speakers, smart displays, smart TVs, and smart everything-elses in myriad combinations. If you’re economically fortunate enough, you might own at least one of each of these categories of products, and for some categories, probably more than one.

As much as I delight in this abundance of gadgetry, sometimes I take a step back and think, isn’t this a bit much? Not because of some penchant for minimalism or an anti-consumerist attitude, but because of all the overlap. So many of these devices do the same things. There may be small differentiations in what one device can do as opposed to another, but the Venn diagram of gadget functionality in 2019 is looking more and more like a single circle all the time.

For example, you might own a phone, tablet, watch, and even a television that all run Android. You might also have a Chromebook laptop that runs Android apps. The Google Assistant probably lives on all of these devices as well, ready to respond when you speak the wake word. But of course, your smart speaker does too.

Or it could be you’ve got an iPhone and an iPad, both running the same iOS operating system, as well as an Apple TV and an Apple Watch, which are also running a version of iOS, all along with a Mac, which is getting more and more of iOS’s features and paradigms plastered onto it. Siri awaits you on all of them, though whether she’ll respond is another story.

With remarkably few exceptions, all of these devices likely let you browse the web, manage your calendar, stream Netflix and Spotify, talk to a digital assistant, and communicate with real humans with text, sound, and video. Hell, you can probably run Microsoft Office on all of them. (I wouldn’t bother doing that with the TV or the watches, though I’m sure you could if you really wanted to.)

What it all adds up to is a lot of devices that all do many of the same things. Maybe in some cases all the same things.

Is there a point at which there is too much redundancy?

For the clearest illustration of tech redundancy in action, let’s look at some low-hanging fruit, the tablet. In a recent piece here at AP, I wrote about finding ways to separate the professional from the personal in one’s digital life, and recommended tablets as a way of cordoning off space just for one’s lean-back time. That’s important, and we’ll come back to it later, but for now, let’s consider how this little extra space could also be considered excess.

The Unjustified Tablet

Before the world knew what an iPad was, one common assumption (at least among Mac rumor blogs) was that the long-awaited Apple tablet would be something like a handheld Mac; Apple perfecting the tablet PC concept championed by Microsoft in years previous. It would be an all-display MacBook running a touch-optimized version of OS X. I mean, Steve Jobs did tell us that the original iPhone “ran OS X.” This new device would be our next computer.

Photo credit: Matt Buchanan [CC-BY-2.0]

What the iPad actually turned out to be was decidedly not a “Mac tablet” (and this is probably what most frustrates tech reviewers about the iPad to this day) but, really, a big iPhone. It absolutely did not run OS X–no more than the iPhone did, anyway. What it was, Steve Jobs told us, was a device that occupied the middle space between a smartphone and a laptop. Not an improved version of the PC, but a new category of device that you didn’t know you needed. (Skating to where the puck is going to be and all that.)

Now, the iPad, this new paradigm in computing, didn’t actually do anything that existing devices didn’t already do. It was functionally redundant. Jobs knew that for the iPad’s existence to be at all justified, it would have to do more than merely mimic the functionality of other devices, but exceed them in certain use cases, which he said were things such as browsing the web, reading books, watching video, listening to music, and doing email.

Today, the consensus seems to be that tablets are somewhat better than phones and laptops for watching videos, light browsing, and playing certain games, but that’s about it. Some professionals, particularly creative professionals, have adopted tablets (iPads, specifically) for their particular use cases, but these are exceptions and they tend to be expensive exceptions. But as Amazon has made clear, millions of folks are happy to save hundreds of dollars by skipping Apple’s tablets and instead get cheap, slow, and relatively limited tablets to cover all the basics. Why invest so much money in a device that doesn’t bring anything new to the table?

Meanwhile, smartphones and laptops have progressively muscled their way into what little territory tablets had any claim to. Remember when we used to talk about “phablets” as a sort of outlier in the phone market? When a 5.5-inch display was considered tablet-like? Oh, how naive we were. The Pixel 3, considered adorably compact in today’s market, has a 5.5-inch display. The “small” Samsung flagship of 2019, the Galaxy S10e, has an even larger 5.8-inch display. With the S10+ and the Note9sporting displays of 6.4 inches, sir, we have not yet begun to phablet.

Super-huge “phablets” of 2014: OnePlus One, iPhone 6 Plus, Galaxy Note 4, and LG G3. Photo: Maurizio Pesce – CC-BY-2.0

And of course, convertible laptops like the Surface, Pixelbook, and Yoga Book ape the form factor of tablets with keyboards that fold or flip out of the way or detach. Even laptops without tablet modes often have touchscreens.

So despite what Steve Jobs promised in 2010, tablets turned out to be “better” for only a very small number of things, and not so much better that it meant that this third category of device had to come into being. There is nothing a tablet does that a laptop or a smartphone (or both) can’t do. The tablet is largely redundant, and I say this as someone who adores his tablet. It’s possible this will begin to change with the newly rebranded “iPadOS” announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and the iPad will in fact become a superior all-purpose computer, but I am skeptical.

This isn’t really just about tablets, but their struggle for existential meaning provides the most obvious illustration of a kind of gadget redundancy that manifests throughout the market. For this next part, instead of looking at something that seems to have little reason to exist, let’s look at something that, increasingly, assimilates all other devices and adapts their technological distinctiveness to its own.

Smartphone Assimilation

Consider DeX, Samsung’s desktop-optimized variation on its version of Android (or look back on the defunct Windows Continuum). With DeX, you take your Galaxy phone, you plug it into a display, add a mouse and keyboard, and shapow, you have, in theory, a fully-functional desktop PC. You can even run a full version of Linux. But instead of a separate PC tower sitting on the floor and spinning its fans, it’s all powered by your personal little slab of glass and metal that you already cradle and stroke hundreds of times a day.

I’ve never had a chance to use DeX myself, and reviews of it have been largely lukewarm. Needing peripheral screens and input devices does make DeX seem like less of a convenience than its marketing promises, but, again, I have no real-world experience with it.

But you have to admit: If it something like DeX or Continuum were somehow flawlessly executed, having the entirety of one’s personal computing needs served by the little device that’s already in your pocket sounds pretty damn cool. And more importantly, it would be a genuine advancement, an honest-to-goodness improvement on the current state of the devices we juggle, all by subsuming the PC’s functionality and making it increasingly redundant.

Let’s apply a modified version of the Steve Jobs iPad standard to this idea. Remember, Jobs said that for the iPad to exist, it had to do some things better than phones and PCs. But this was to justify the introduction of a new device category. Now, we’re going to justify one category of device obviating another. So in this case, the smartphone-as-PC only needs to match the PC’s functionality, not beat it.

And we already know that Android Q will have a desktop mode built in. (Though, as AP’s own Manuel Vonau wrote, “The result looks like a love child between Windows and Chrome OS.”) Google expects that a growing number of users will want to dock their phones and use them like “regular computers.” This is a thing that’s happening. The only real question is whether the quality of the experience can be made to match existing PC functionality, so that it doesn’t feel like a compromise or a step down from using a good ol’ laptop.

Parade of the Superfluous

So now tablets are (and always have been) redundant, and it may be that PCs will be too for all but the most demanding of use cases. Let’s not forget how music players from Walkmen to CD players to iPods were made redundant by smartphones too! It’s a bloodbath! What else can we ruin?

What about televisions? A TV is really just a screen in need of something to display. Maybe that’s the stuff coming over the coaxial cable, maybe it’s the stuff coming in from the video game console, or maybe it’s stuff being cast from a phone, like, oh, I dunno, a desktop interface. TVs aren’t really redundant, if only because we’ll always want a giant screen in our homes, but they lack the differentiation they had when they primarily got their content from the airwaves.

What about all those smart speakers with Alexa and Siri and John Legend inside them? Redundant. Speakers themselves aren’t redundant, obviously, but the digital assistant functionality built into them already infests all your other devices.

How about smartwatches? As of now, they’re really extensions of the phone, accessories that take some of your phone’s functions and move them to your wrist. But of course, if we’re talking about a device that tells time and is always with you, then yes, watches are redundant, smart or otherwise.

I Take It All Back

Let’s go back to Steve Jobs and his iPad justifications one more time. Whether or not the iPad changed the world, Jobs did have the wisdom to understand that the experience of using a computing device could be made qualitatively better by suiting the form factor to the situation. different forms of devices put you in different frames of mind.

Laptops are indeed better than tablets for typing out an email, for example, if you’re thinking purely in terms of raw functionality. But to type on a laptop is to be in a very different mode than doing so on a tablet. Broadly, the laptop wants you to lean in and get to work, and the tablet allows you to lean back and muse. The tablet’s redundant functionality means that you can get some things done, but only if you need to right then. Otherwise, hey, you’re sitting back and you’re watching a video or reading a comic, and you can be all professional later.

Like any industry, the tech industry needs to give us reasons to buy as many iterations on their products as possible. If they sell us all on the indispensability of a square, they’ll come back later to tell us we also need a circle. And then they’ll hold an event to tell us why we need a middle category, and charge us $500 for a squircle. That’s just how it is.

One person owning several versions of the panoply of devices with mentioned in this article, with their overlapping functionality, might be excessive, and it would simply be more efficient (not to mention less expensive) if fewer devices, or even just one device, covered all the bases. One thing that this world does not suffer from is a lack of extra stuff.

But efficiency is not the goal of human life (at least I hope, or I’m in real trouble).

Think about a person sitting in a chair in the living room. If they’re looking at a smartphone, their gaze is narrow, their focus scrunched into a small glowing rectangle of light. If they’re on a laptop, their visual horizon is blocked by the large display, their hands invisibly tethered to the keyboard and touchpad.

If they’re on a tablet, however, the device is farther from their face, their other hand may be mostly free, and they can have a greater awareness of the space around them. All three of these devices do almost all the same things, they are functionally redundant, and yet their impact on our psyches and our behavior is really quite pronounced. It makes sense to have different form factors with overlapping capabilities.

There’s a time to lean forward and toil, there’s a time to lean back and ruminate, and there’s a time to be on the move and productive. The context in which we use our gadgets matters. A little redundancy can be a good thing.

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