The considerable success of the tablet, which has only been about a decade in waiting, has created a quandary…how many personal gadgets can we really utilise and manage in our compute-verse? The considerable success of the tablet, which has only been about a decade in waiting, has created a quandary that’s difficult to solve. And no, it’s not just that it is one more personal device for us to worry about losing, it’s that along with the smartphone it is an additional powerful computing device that’s entered our computing ecosystem and which requires some adjustments to be made. Considering that “convergence” was one of the much beaten bandwagons over the last decade, it’s really ironic that we’re now facing an unprecedented divergence of computing devices in our households.

Over the last decade, it seems like Apple (and others) have embarked on a journey to out-manoeuvre the Wintel PC platform in our lives. First to come was the MP3/Video player, which took personal entertainment on the road and into our pockets. Next to arrive was the “really smartphone”, which pretty much transformed our expectations of what we wanted to do on the move, eventually at the cost of other devices like the point-and-shoot camera. The tablets became a third front that encircled the PC and seem to have reduced its importance, at least from an entertainment/leisure standpoint. The next stage, we are told, will be the SMART TV, which will perhaps complete the circle of platforms surrounding the PC and make it a somewhat marginal device.

Overlapping functionality, incremental efficiency and exponential costs?

The strengths of each of these devices is clear – the phone is the king of voice, messaging, chat and contact management to most of us; the tablet is awesome for leisure reading and general multimedia content  consumption and the PC is irreplaceable for content creation and data storage. But it’s also becoming clear that there is considerable overlap in the functionality these devices support. The capabilities of the tablet for instance, pretty much mirror those of the smartphone (which is why you have basically one OS platform for both types of devices). The niche popularity of the Galaxy Note shows that the tablet is replaceable, if you’ve got a slightly more “flexible” smartphone. I’m betting most Note users almost completely forget their tablets in a while. Similarly for those who are wedded to their smartphones, the tablet becomes largely an occasionally used, after-hours leisure device or kiddie amusement tool. I suppose that all of this is well enough for most, but then what’s a SMART TV going to do for us in the future?

Popular belief currently suggests that you need to have at least a laptop, a smartphone and tablet to complete your computing armoury. At about Rs. 35,000 each for the newest smartphone and tablet (on  average) and at least Rs. 40,000 for a decent laptop, that means putting down over Rs. 1,00,000 lakh to do  just about the same stuff we’ve been doing with our laptop/PC for the last five years. While convenience, flexibility, mobility and redundancy are all admirable attributes, given the degree of overlap of utility (see below) it seems a touch excessive. And if you add a NewGen SMART TV to make it a complete 4-member happy family, that’s definitely a bit much. Of course, this doesn’t even include the PlayStation, media-server PC, multi-room music system and PSP that probably already inhabit your home.

Another thing worth noting is that unlike just five years ago, each of these devices is now tethered (thanks Steve to a not inconsiderable service charge – for the cable dish, broadband, 3G, cellular service, (and  maybe now cloud storage?). And when you consider that the average lifecycle for these devices has dropped  by at least 30% (from 3-4 years for a laptop to at most 2 years for the tablet or smartphone), things really seem to add up.

We now need 1 lakh+ worth of personal gadgets to feel complete?

Now for those who are raking it in and don’t really care, this this doesn’t really matter – though I’m betting that your actual utilisation of at least a couple of those devices really sucks. But for others who look at 30K as a sizeable monthly rent cheque, perhaps you want to pause and take stock before you get an upgrade. There is just too much overlap in their features and applications for you not to pause before you decide to make the leap.

Feature Overlap means you get a lot less than you pay for

Feature Overlap means you get a lot less than you pay for

Much as we’d like to think otherwise, our brains haven’t expanded in proportion to our universe of computing devices over the last decade. And no matter which kind of cybernetically-enhanced being we’d like to think we are, very few of us can really adapt seamlessly and painlessly to sufficiently utilising all these (personal, not shared) devices.

What you need to do (and this is the hardest part) is pick your spots very carefully. The media playback on a PlayStation 3 is beautiful (there just isn’t a better media player), but unless you play a fair amount of games it just doesn’t make sense at 20k. A media-server + in-built TV network player combo works well enough in most cases along with a universal remote. On most smartphones the key apps are usually just voice, messaging, synced contacts, music and the camera (call it your Fav5). Almost any 10K “semi-smart” phone can do that and indulge occasional web browsing needs. Sure there is a world of interesting apps out there, but they very rarely make your top 5 or 10 most used apps list in the long run.

Most frequently used functionalities in our compute-verse

Most frequently used functionalities in our compute-verse

The reality is, that most of us can’t really effectively utilise more than two reasonably powerful personal computing devices at a time. And two-and-a-half is probably the limit (a dumb phone) that you can use without considerable waste or just plain self-indulgence.

Which means that one really smart device (your laptop) and a smartphone should be quite enough. If you absolutely must have a tablet, then perhaps a dumb phone is all you need to go with it and the laptop. In case laptop OS boot times put you off, then perhaps you could get a Rs. 10,000 flash drive upgrade – it’ll get you up in 12-15 seconds which is pretty darned good.

Stop. Think twice, wait and only then proceed

This approach of self-denial might seem regressive initially, but it does have considerable upsides. I waited a couple of years before upgrading to an LCD TV because high-definition content was scarce and because I wanted to move to a projector instead (we watch very little TV so that makes sense). But once I saw that 32” True 1080p TVs were getting cheaper much faster than 1080p projectors, I made the jump. Now, the TV will make for a big-ass desktop display when I find the Hi-Def projector I can live with for at least a 4 year spell. The same applies to the tablet, because I refuse to be burdened with a tablet AND a laptop at the same time. The day I’ll buy a tablet, will be the day that a keyboard, mouse and at least 150GB flash storage are part of an affordable and well-designed package.

When you don’t give this some time and react to your first impulse, you’re likely to end up with something that is incrementally better but considerably more expensive. A good example of this is the current generation of SMART TVs (which just have basic browsing ability and a set of web content channels) and the 3D TVs, which are really not worth the 30% to 100% premium over perfectly good “normal” TV’s.

The best way to ensure a balanced decision (if you haven’t already discounted me as an over-the-hill, gadget challenged and regressive cheapskate,) is to follow a simple practice. The first time that you feel really compelled to buy into or upgrade a personally-used technology device, ask yourself if you really need it AND take a month to consider the answer. If you still feel compelled after the first month, you’ll need to ask yourself the same question when another month has passed. Go ahead and make the buy only if your answer remains strongly the same. More likely, sanity will have prevailed, and you’ll have a clearer sense of what you really need.

And while you’re at it, please tell your dad and mom they don’t need the new Galaxy S3 either – it’s not designed for their type of human.

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