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More divergence or better convergence?

Not just because of Apple, convergence is -- once again -- all the rage. However, both the history of convergent products and recent research suggest that convergence may not be the (only) holy grail of innovation.

There are many pundits who herald Apple for its "convergence strategy:" iTunes is on more than 300 million computers, Apple TV has been launched, and the iPhone has emerged as the most talked about new consumer electronic device in history and is expected to fuel the launch of more all-in-one gadgets from competing consumer electronic makers. Convergence is -- once again -- all the rage.

But what does convergence exactly mean? Let's try a very simplified overview. First of all, there is the media convergence between the worlds of telecoms, TV, Internet, and computing, including fixed-mobile convergence, voice and data convergence, and three-screen-convergence. Then there is what you may call messaging convergence: email, chat, video-conferencing, and other messaging tools are becoming more and more integrated. Device convergence, furthermore, describes the fact that almost everything from a laptop to a mobile phone to a television to a games console is now, arguably, the same kind of device: each consists of a microprocessor, a screen, storage, an input device, and a network connection. Finally, all these types of convergence require a convergent user experience. Media scholar Norbert Bolz argues that "Shaping the interface between telecommunications, new media, and computer technologies is the most important task of the future." Indeed, there is a gradual convergence of things with Internet and the Internet of things, resulting in ubiquitous computing and -- to a certain degree -- ubiquitous design.

Yet some outspoken critics of convergence remain skeptical. According to Al Ries, "In the high-tech world, divergence devices have been spectacular successes. But convergence devices, for the most part, have been spectacular failures." Ries provides some examples: "The first MP3 players (the Diamond Rio, for example) were flash-memory units capable of holding only 20 or 30 songs. The first iPod, on the other hand, had a hard drive and could hold thousands of songs. Now there were two types of MP3 players, a classic example of divergence at work. Every high-tech device has followed a similar pattern. The first computer was a mainframe computer, followed by the minicomputer, the desktop computer, the laptop computer, the handheld computer, the server and other specialty computers. The computer didn't converge with another device. It diverged. When the cellphone was first introduced, it was called a 'car phone' because it was too big and heavy to lug around. You might have thought it would eventually converge with the automobile. It did not. Instead it diverged and today we have many types of cellphones. Every Best Buy and Circuit City is filled with a host of other divergence devices that have been enormously successful: the digital camera, the plasma TV, the wireless e-mail device, the personal video recorder, the GPS navigation device. What convergence device has been a big success? Not many, although there have been a lot of convergence failures."

Ries was obviously wrong in predicting the failure of the iPhone, but nonetheless his view corresponds with the findings of a recent research project, conducted by Swisscom's R&D division. The study examines how users really use their cell phones, and it unearths some surprising insights that run counter to the widespread gospel of convergence: "People are in fact using different communications technologies in distinct and divergent ways. The fixed-line phone is the collective channel, a shared organisational tool, with most calls made in public because they are relevant to the other members of the household. Mobile calls are for last-minute planning or to co-ordinate travel and meetings. Texting is for intimacy, emotions and efficiency. E-mail is for administration and to exchange pictures, documents and music. Instant-messaging (IM) and voice-over-internet calls are continuous channels, open in the background while people do other things. Each communication channel is performing an increasingly different function."

So what do innovators make of these conflicting views? Of course, one could argue that the iPhone doesn't really try to be a convergent product and that, in fact, convergence is a myth that users don't care about. Is the answer to divergent user needs more divergence or better convergence? "We have to be extremely careful that we don't go in the Swiss army knife kind of direction where we lose focus on what the consumer wants," warns Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, the boss of Nokia, in a recent Economist article. I think he is right. It is paramount that companies have a "convergent view" on product ecosystems and know when to design the space between the devices and platforms and when not - this is what Apple is so good at. What we need is a greater diversity of hybrid devices that orchestrate convergence and divergence to the benefit of a more satisfying user experience. Convergence does not equal "sameness." Convergence and divergence are not fixed attributes; they are adverbs that describe the modality of an experience. A convergence/divergence combination will enable variety, which will again enable true customization. The Holy Grail is not convergence. It is a slight variation of a line by Malcom Gladwell: "There is no perfect product. There are only perfect products."