I held a Research In Motion BlackBerry 7100T in my hand yesterday (read a review here). It's a feature-rich phone with a gorgeous user interface that happens to do e-mail. Earlier, I'd been talking with Nokia about its 9300, a mobile messaging device you can also use to make phone calls. Then, last week, I rented an Avis Assist unit during a trip to Pittsburgh. It guided me unerringly door-to-door through that city's bizarre maze of highways and streets, calling out street names - all of this on a cheap, monochrome Motorola phone.
So RIM is doing a Nokia, Nokia is doing a RIM, and Avis Rent A Car and Motorola are doing a low-budget Garmin. Now, let me tell you why this matters to IT.
It's convergence. Glorious, relevant, beneficial convergence of the sort we want to see in all the technology that IT uses. Convergence is consolidation, and consolidation means you spend less, buy fewer, buy less often, and enjoy restored competition as vendors drive through other vendors' hedges.
I'll tell you what I mean in terms that are closer to your day-to-day working life. When you buy a desktop PC, you take a considerable number of features for granted; so much so that you're probably not aware of all the bits that go into a modern desktop workstation. Who could have predicted that you could buy a single machine - complete with audio, a 32-bit bus, accelerated graphics, high-speed disk drives, 100 Mbit/s Ethernet, and a CD burner - without spreading a lot of money across a bunch of different vendors?
Of course your bargain desktop makes phone calls over the Internet and does live chat with shared screens. Like you'd buy anything that didn't.
Think for a moment about how ridiculous you thought many of these features were before they converged into the standard-issue PC. PCs have been converged for so long that their usefulness as examples of convergence has faded. I welcome mobile convergence as a fresh take on the subject.
You might think it's ludicrous, consumerish, and gimmicky to have a BlackBerry with a phone keypad and a pseudo-3D GUI, or a Nokia phone with a QWERTY keyboard, or a phone of any kind that you can stick to your windshield to act as a talking road map. Each of these is a niche technology, and indeed, the vendors position them as such; Motorola's navigation project was a custom job done just for Avis.
But even modest commercial success of any or all of these technologies will create pressure on other vendors to match those features. One feature at a time, every mobile device will be capable of doing all of the things these devices do.
What's most important here is that your willingness to ignore the limits you've placed on your expectations is the driving force behind consolidation in any area of the technology market. The high-end PC sound card and accelerated graphics you may have sniffed at years ago led directly to Web conferencing, VoIP, streaming media, rich documents, and metaconsolidation [What a lovely word! - Editor] such as that we now see in the Tablet PC.
You still think that BlackBerry phone or that Nokia e-mail handheld is silly? Dip into petty cash, get yourself one, and have a little fun imagining what it will be like when this convergence trend has run its course, and you can take the features of these oddball devices for granted (or have a look through our Case Study section for some ideas) . What magnificent things will grow out of all this silliness?
Tom Yager is technical director of the InfoWorld Test Center.