The mobile device industry is approaching a significant developmental milestone. Will popular applications predominantly be hosted on purpose-built devices created especially for them, or will they most often sit astride other applications in general-purpose gadgets?
The New York Times focuses on this question within the context of eBook readers. The writers note that there are big bets being made on devices such as Amazon's Kindle. Simultaneously, however, applications for general platforms such as the iPhone are capable of providing an adequate electronic reading experience, albeit without all the bells and whistles. And without the big price tag and need to worry about yet another gadget.
eBook readers are but one example of an application that can be accommodated on both purpose-built and general devices. GPS is another. Earlier this month, I spoke with ABI Research Analyst Jeff Orr, who pointed to a veritable flotilla of applications that could find a home on either form factor. Said Orr:
I am looking at six segments in mobile CE: mobile gaming consoles, personal media players, personal navigation devices, digital still cameras, digital camcorders and eBook readers. Stepping back and looking at that bookshelf, you can make the argument that functions of mobile CE devices could be accomplished by a MID or netbook. However, it's a very different market.
Of course, life-and electronic gadgetry-seldom is an either/or decision. There will continue to be standalone GPS devices and applications that provide the functions in a generalist platform. People will continue to buy Kindles and their kin and read eBooks downloaded to iPhones.
At the same time, the parallel presentation possibilities introduce huge variables into the business equation. As Orr said, the marketing approaches are worlds apart. Which approach will be most popular? Will one predominate at the high end and one at the low? If so, which approach should a particular vendor take? How will the existence of the other approach influence long-term R&D? Will the landscape be subdivided by enterprise and consumer approaches? The questions are endless -- and vital.
There also will be questions for users. Are the bells and whistles that are present in the purpose-built devices more than bells and whistles and, in the final analysis, worth the money? Is using an iPod Touch to read nearly the experience of using a device that is produced by a company that has spent millions of dollars in a competitive environment building an elegant eReader?
It may be wise to keep these questions in mind as the predictable hype-athon to the introduction of the Apple tablet, which is rumored-and almost certain to appear-gets under way. This CNN/Money story unintentionally suggests that Apple is attempting to have its iCake and eat it, too:
If the rumors are true, the tablet will be able to do basically everything a gadget could possibly do. It's an e-reader, a gaming device, and a music player. You can watch TV and movies on it and surf the Internet (or so we've heard).
Perhaps. Some folks are skeptical, which is a good thing. Even for Apple, it seems that creating a device that can do everything at a low price point from within the tablet form factor is a stretch. Perhaps the project is an effort-conscious or not-to put off the decision on whether to build devices that narrowly excel or adequately cover a much broader waterfront.