Four Handhelds, three computers, two email accounts, one little problem

Starbucks Pacific Place

Dreaming in Kodachrome

1412 hours

I’m about to spend a bunch of posts diving into the promise and reality of 3G in China, but before I do, a brief call to all of my friends in the information technology business.

Not Different, Just Extreme

I sit down at a table and lay them out: A Motorola ZN5 (phone and camera); a Blackberry 8707 (email); iPod Touch (PDA/games/vids); iPod Classic (the music monster.) And THEN I reach for one of two laptops in the bag. I’ll admit that I’m hardly typical (I mean, even Steven Lin, aka “Flypig,” calls me “the geekiest geek I’ve ever met.”) But after constant trial-and-error, this is the system that makes me more productive and keeps the information I need close at hand.

Yet I am hardly alone. As I spend chunks of my days watching Beijingers native and naturalized live their digital lives, I’ve found that I’m simply an extreme example of a growing trend. For a lot of people in China, the early promise of convergence – your whole digital life in one device – misses the point.

Blowing Divergence

What we are getting in its stead is something quite different. Sure, some people ARE converging: there are some for whom cramming more and more features into a single device, (the digital Swiss Army Knife), is still a practical idea. But I’m seeing a growing number of people here in China using several complimentary devices. Call it “divergence.”

The gadget and computer industry should be forgiven the error of predicting a single-device future. But now that the future is here, and the one-gadget-fits-all approach is a fit for only a small percentage of people, the hard work begins. The industry needs to help us recognize the challenge of living in a diverged world, and it needs to help us make the most of it.

Marketing is not going to be enough. Nor, for that matter, is complying with a handful of software and hardware standards like USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

Harmonize my Gadgets…please

Instead, the industry needs to stop selling us “THE” device, and start showing us how these devices can fit into our lives and our personal information environments, and then giving us simple and workable building blocks so that we can store our digital stuff in different places and machines, and access all of it whenever and wherever we want to, and we want to do it without having to scratch our heads, much less read an instruction sheet.

(And before you roll out my beloved Apple as an example of a company that is making the personal information ecosystem a reality, I have one word: MobileMe. Serving to prove that enabling a personal information ecosystem is so hard that even Apple has a hard time doing it.)

Don’t tell me my phone is a computer. Tell me what it can do better than my computer, or tell me what it can do that my laptop cannot.

Don’t tell me your online document service can replace Microsoft Office. Tell me how well it works as an extension of my desktop software.

Don’t sell me a platform of one-size-fits-all online services. You have no idea what I need.

And take a lesson from companies like Evernote, who simply offer an online/offline application that is so mind-bogglingly useful that people will look for new ways to use it.

That process will be hard. It will be messy. And in China it will be especially difficult, because most of the country is still figuring out how to get on the information bus, making the place a moving target.

But it is the standard by which the information industry is going to be judged. If you want credibility, stop promising us info-nirvana and start delivering ways to let us design our own information ecosystems.

Stepping off soapbox.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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