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One Is Not Enough

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Oh, how wrong we were about ‘convergence’! There was a time when everyone thought there would be one super-device — maybe something like a Palm Pilot — which would give us all the screen space we wanted and on which we would be able to watch television, scribble notes, check mail and make phone calls. And today’s top end smartphones can really be said to be that super-device and more. But what we didn’t guess was how one screen would not be enough. So while everything can converge on one device, we also want everything on many devices. We are in an era of screen greed.

For the past decade or so, technology has probably gone and rewired our brains to never be satisfied with doing one thing at a time. We’ve got to be texting with one hand and grabbing a slice of pizza with the other. We’ve got to be talking on the phone, but pounding out a quick reply to an email on the laptop. We’ve convinced ourselves that tasking is not okay — multi-tasking is what we must do.

Not only must we do many many things at once, we must do this wherever we are: in the car, on the stairs, at our desks, at a party. So obviously, we need screens everywhere we turn. Strangely, we even need split screens and screens within screens.

The companies that started all of this have to now scramble to make sure they’re present everywhere; not just with hardware that can help us multitask, but in software, connectivity and content. No longer is it all that easy for a tech company to just sell one piece of the puzzle and leave the rest to someone else. It has to build the ecosystem and craft the experience. Companies, even those who were or are still tech giants, have to reinvent themselves to fit into this reality and take it forward. It’s tough. Especially when you don’t even know for sure what new innovation will come along and disrupt all that has been painstakingly built so far. Could we soon have, for instance, virtual surfaces and keyboards? Could we have brilliantly accurate voice recognition to make keyboards obsolete altogether? Could the use of gestures, as input, be so developed as to make larger devices unnecessary? Turning anything you touch into a digital surface has already been demonstrated. Maybe you can soon just yell at your ceiling to turn into a television, or else... It’s not entirely inconceivable.

Because multitasking is a reality, business organisations expect employees to be able to deliver any time at all, never really being ‘off’ at any time. Why should you not respond to the boss’s email when you’re watching a movie? There are enough devices to make sure you do that. Multitasking has become a skill that is valued and measured by organisations. I remember a boss who would become indignant when I protested about too many projects to work on at the same time. “Process them in parallel,” he would insist, making me feel like a CPU on legs.

Another driver of the number of screens around us is the fact that we are in an age of sharing and participating. If you don’t have a cellphone or tablet in your hands while you are watching something exciting on television, how are you supposed to tweet about it or post on Facebook? In seconds you can take a picture, form an opinion, zip it off to the social networks and find yourself in an involved discussion — and the movie isn’t halfway done yet.

Because of the availability of so many screens, we’ve also become more aware of our visual side. Content cannot get away with being dull old text. We need rich, full-on images and videos. And then each screen does something better than the others, so you need them because of what they’re best at. It’s not unusual for me to be writing using a laptop, looking through relevant news through beautiful news apps on the iPad, scribbling points on the Galaxy Note, and half-watching a related video on another tablet or beamed on to the television. All of these have become important inputs and as information junkies, we’re unwilling to forego any of them.

Television isn’t the king screen any more, no matter how smart or how big it is. And a computer isn’t the only device on which we can work, no matter how capable it is. Our phones can control our TVs, our gaming devices can email, our cameras can get on to Facebook, our tablets can become our newspapers. On top of that, we harbour no delay as we move from one screen to another and increasingly expect no delay or disconnect in our content and data being available wherever we look.

There’s a lot to do.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 10-12-2012)