Matt Gemmell

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The Unacknowledged Compromise

tech 5 min read

Comparisons are one of the mainstays of tech journalism. Each new offering is inevitably framed in terms of how it measures up to not only the previous model, but also the competition - where ‘competition’ means just about anything the reviewer wants it to.

We live in a world where the word ‘computer’ has become amorphous and vague. Your wristwatch may very well be a computer, even if you don’t think of it that way. Personal computing devices have now reached out from the home, infiltrating our luggage and our pockets. We already have too many categories of device, and it’s commonplace to see a traveller unloading not only a laptop, but also a tablet and the omnipresent smartphone from the same small bag.

Clearly, there’s no shortage of choice. And yet there’s a peculiar disconnect between our acknowledged multi-device world, and how the technology industry seems to view (and review) products. Each new device is stacked up against its forebears, even across different categories and platforms, as if the substitution of one for the other reflects reality. We read about alternatives, whereas what we’re often looking for are companions.

The games industry is probably the archetype of this kind of implicit partisanship. I vividly (and with considerable fondness) remember how fiercely the videogames magazines of the 80s and 90s defended their own chosen platforms. The ‘other’ machines and their mascots (be they Mario and Samus, or Sonic and Kid Chameleon) were the butt of jokes and mean-spirited pity. It was fun, certainly, and it reflected the reality of children being given a single games console as a Christmas or birthday gift. It also sold magazines, and that factor can’t be ignored. But I wanted to play Mario and Sonic. Didn’t you?

We’re not talking about toys and games now. Our phones and tablets cost hundreds of dollars, and our laptops often cost even more. The electronics load-out of the average business traveller certainly has enough value to warrant careful selection - but it’s very unlikely to consist of just a single computer.

We don’t choose just one device, and nor should we. A tablet isn’t as comfortable, portable or enduring a reading device as an e-ink Kindle. A smartphone doesn’t have the screen size to be a useful work machine for all but the briefest sessions. A keyboard is a lot more pleasurable to type on than a touch-screen. Indeed, a Nintendo or Sony handheld can offer a spectrum of portable gaming experiences that are tough to replicate without physical buttons. You may disagree with one or two of those specific assertions, but the point holds. Unsurprisingly, products are designed (or at least optimised) for specific scenarios.

Our industry’s obsession with strictly comparative reviewing, and the product partisanship that results from it, leads only to substandard experiences: the person who reads a novel on a smartphone, or types a thesis on a tablet, or surfs the web on e-paper. More tragically, it leads to fundamentally compromised products, like convertible tablets that can assume a laptop form-factor, or the giant-phone ‘phablets’, or operating systems that don’t fully commit to either pointing devices or touch. Compromises don’t make for great products, and nor do they make for great experiences.

That’s why you have more than one device. That’s why it’s perfectly reasonable to pack and travel with several of them. And that’s also why a more rational view of a piece of technology is that it’s part of an ecosystem - your own personal one, encompassing your work, leisure, interests and utility needs.

Now, it’s obviously true that there are financial constraints to consider: we can’t all buy multiple devices, much less keep them reasonably up to date. That’s a perfectly normal state of affairs. But we do need to acknowledge that it’s an artificial (if practical) constraint. It’s a compromise borne of necessity, not a decision in itself. Our industry tends to behave like the opposite is true.

I think there are six categories of consumer computing device that are interesting to most people: primary work machine, portable (or travel) machine, tablet, phone, gaming device, and reading device. You can group them (and potentially collapse them together) in various different ways, but for the moment, that’s what we have. They all have their various and relative strengths and weaknesses, and they all have concrete reasons to exist. They all remain fully justified categories, because each is substantially better at certain tasks than the others - whether it’s due to ergonomics, aesthetics, endurance, portability, capability, or software/media availability.

They exist in a continuum, and there are many overlapping usage scenarios amongst them. Indeed, many of our most important recent technologies focus on providing access to information regardless of which device we’re using. Sharing, sync, and cloud storage embrace not just device-agnosticism but multiple points of access. Our view of technology hasn’t quite caught up with the way we already use it.

It’s far more helpful to take a holistic view of your technological entourage. We tend to weigh up a single device against our myriad potential uses, whereas the smart question is whether a new machine can add to or improve our scenarios of use. Can it let me travel lighter? Will it cause less eyestrain when reading? Does it run an app or game I want? Is the cost worth the benefit, given what I already have?

We’re not children anymore, anxiously waiting to see if Santa brought a box from Nintendo or Sega. Yet our infatuation with new technology makes us irrationally yearn for a just-one solution - and we’ll jump through any number of hoops to find it.

Life’s too short to shove a square peg into a round hole. A tablet isn’t a logical substitute for a laptop (it can do almost everything a laptop can, but not in the same way), nor is a smartphone a substitute for a dedicated gaming device (not without additional hardware, and not for the same game library). You can probably do 80% of the things you’d want to do on any type of device, but the specific tasks within that 80% vary. And then there’s the remaining 20%, which will be either painful or impossible if you don’t respect your sanity enough to buy a hammer instead of using the handle of a screwdriver.

Compromises are sometimes necessary, but they indicate flawed options or artificial limitations. I don’t think we take enough time to assess whether we’re unconsciously opting into constraints that don’t really need to exist.

Using only one device isn’t liberating; it’s just the opposite. It means putting yourself through unnecessary discomfort and friction, even though a better option is available. The only valid measure of technology’s worth is what’s best in context. The only real consideration is suitability, and it varies from moment to moment.

By all means make a choice, and by all means obtain the maximum utility from it. Just don’t deceive yourself about the reasons for your decision. If you can only afford one machine, then that’s all you’ll buy, and that’s fine - but don’t frame it as a choice. If you only want to carry one, then only carry one - and acknowledge that you imposed that limitation yourself.

But if those limitations don’t really apply, allow yourself to see the age-old wisdom of using the right tools for the job. Choosing only one device is so enormous a compromise as to make other factors irrelevant.

No device fits all situations, and no device ever will. If you do more than one thing, in more than one place or in more than one way, maybe you ought to have more than one tool.

A version of this article originally appeared in issue 6 of The Loop Magazine. I’m grateful for Jim Dalrymple’s enlightened policy of only requiring a month’s exclusivity.