The next big thing

The iPad as “Swiss Army Gadget”: Welcome to the new device paradigm

Last week Boxee announced a new $99 TV companion box for the US market that plays internet video apps, pulls down over-the-air broadcast signals and can record broadcast video on an infinite cloud-based DVR that you can later watch on your phone or tablet anywhere in the world. If you have been around long enough, you’ve seen this before, but you’ve seen it as a series of separate announcements: TiVo brought the DVR into wide use, Apple TV offered online video apps and the Slingbox let you pull recorded TV content from your home and push it out to your Blackberry. Back when you had one.

What’s amazing about this announcement is not that Boxee has figured out how to do it all in a single, cheap box, but that Boxee is merely doing what everybody else is. That is, the company has jumped on an increasingly powerful bandwagon I call the “Swiss Army Gadget” paradox, in which—like with the famed knives from which I borrowed the name—devices are loaded up with as many useful features as possible and then sold more cheaply than a single-function device was just a few years ago.

Some refer to this tendency of devices to collide with each other as convergence. But they typically go on to prognosticate that convergence will result in fewer consumer devices. Some have even prophesied a day when we all have just one device that does it all for us.

That is exactly wrong. We are buying more devices, not less. Even as one category of devices disappears—as the point and shoot digital camera seems to be doing for many of us—other categories of devices replace them, not even doing so one-for-one. I may not use my point and shoot digital camera much anymore, but it has been replaced by a digital SLR I borrow from one of my kids from time to time, the camera on my phone, the webcam on my ultrabook I use for Skype and the camera on my Kindle Fire HD (which I don’t use yet, but probably will very soon).

The smartphone taught us to buy into the Swiss Army Gadget model and the tablet cemented the deal. The fact that the iPad can convincingly pretend to be anything from a sketchbook to a video production studio to an email client should have made us think we don’t need any other devices.

Apple’s launch of the iPad mini, the new 7.9-inch tablet, was designed to grab consumer attention while adding to our stack of gadgets. Many iPad mini owners in the first weeks and months—probably as many as half of them—will be people who already have a tablet. Thus the paradox of the Swiss Army Gadget will reign supreme: We’ll all have more gadgets than before, each of them individually more powerful than all of our collective gadgets from just two or three years ago.

And why not? Who said that we had to be content with a single device? Early convergence prophets claimed that would be more convenient. But what could possibly be more convenient than having a family of synchronized devices at your disposal, each one able to pick up where the last one left off?

We do this because even though we’re buying new gadgets, we don’t care about the devices at all. We are now addicted to the digital platforms—Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft—that power these devices. When we buy a new device this gift-giving season, it will be because these digital platforms have captivated us sufficiently to make us think of each device purchase as an extension of the value we already get from them. This is good for device makers—we buy more gadgets, more quickly—in the short run.

But in the long run, all the power in this Swiss Army Gadget world is accruing to these four tech titans. So this holiday, as you snap up yet another device for your friends and family, pause to thank these platforms for competing so vigorously that as an end result you can buy cheap gadgets that do even more overlapping things for you than the best single device could just a few years ago. Then go ahead and buy them, buy a whole bundle of them.

Photo by Sidduz, courtesy of a Creative Commons license.