Swiss Army knives have long been known for their multi-tasking ability. The Swiss Army Champ, for example, is a handy little concept with its gazillion different features -- well, 33 to be exact. This handheld multi-tool has an impressive list of devices, from the classic basics like a knife, screwdriver, and can opener to more unusual items, including a magnifying glass, ballpoint pen, and fully functional teleporter. What? Your model doesn't come with a teleporter? Well, OK. The teleporter is one thing it doesn't do, but it sure seems as if it can do everything else.
But if you've ever used a Swiss Army knife, you'll know that although it's capable of doing a lot of things, it does no one thing exceptionally well. Its blade is functional, but it'll never be confused with John Rambo's machete-sized knife. Its wood saw is usable, but if you're expecting to chop down a tree with it, forget about it. In a nutshell, if you're looking for outstanding performance in any one tool type, stick to that dedicated tool. If you're looking for a tool that does many different tasks, each to a limited degree, the Swiss Army knife is just what you need.
In a very similar fashion, consumers are seeing the same options with high-tech handheld gadgets. On one end of the spectrum is the push to achieve the Swiss Army knife of handheld devices -- something that incorporates multiple functions and abilities, including phone, email, Internet, camera, portable gaming, GPS navigation, PDA, and MP3, just to name a few. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the dedicated gizmos like MP3 players, portable gaming devices, and GPS units. These units are made to do one thing and to do it well.
Dedicated vs. Integrated: Who wins? Will it be the all-for-one device -- which does many things, but none exceptionally well -- that rules the day, or will there remain a free-for-all, with many tasks requiring many specialized tools?
Was that an iPod I saw at the Smithsonian?
The explosive growth of the iPod has been well documented. But as new, hip, and hot as this product is, you wouldn't know it from listening to one of its biggest critics. A month ago, Bill Gates took a jab at Apple's
As we've seen, the MP3 player is not the only candidate for convergence fodder. Dedicated PDAs were also ripe for the integration picking. Not surprisingly, companies like palmOne, with its Treo, and Research In Motion
"E-A Spor ... Can you hear me now?"
Portable gaming systems are also slowly getting in on the consolidation act. Sony's PSP has a USB connection that allows it to download and play digital music. With Nintendo's longtime dominance in this market, one has to wonder what features that company is planning to integrate into its next-generation GameBoy. Nokia
Earlier this month, video game software powerhouse Electronic Arts
The Kodak killer?
Surely cameras can withstand the cell phone onslaught, right? Think again. Cameras and cell phones have been clumsily wedded together for a few years now, but there's plenty of speculation that this relationship will only grow and improve over time. While Canon and Nikon will never have to worry about the cell phone encroaching on their lucrative high-end digital SLR cameras, it appears that the low-end and disposable-camera markets are certainly free for the taking.
With more and more people carrying camera phones, one has to wonder how long Kodak's line of disposable cameras will continue to exist. Even the low-end camera market is feeling the pressure, as Sprint
Dedicated GPS handheld units: I never knew ye
While I flipped through the latest edition of Backpacker magazine, two different ads caught my attention. One was from Garmin
Will GPS units also see the same fate that Gates predicted for the iPod? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, Garmin is smart enough to know that the competition to produce the Swiss Army knife of handhelds is alive and well, and it appears that it has been taking steps to get in on the action. A few years back, the company inked a licensing agreement with Qualcomm to use its wireless-communication technology, the fruit of which is its NavTalk GSM cell phone integrating its GPS know-how.
Garmin isn't stopping with the cell phone. It also has a line of products called the iQue (perhaps a play on words, borrowing from the wildly successful iPod) that merges a PDA and a GPS into a single unit. While the company is still known for its dedicated GPS products, like the GPSMAP series, it looks as though the pressure to integrate multiple tools into a single unit is intensifying.
The Swiss Army knife of cell phones
Our hectic lives are filled with a myriad of responsibilities, and having a tool capable of assisting with multiple tasks would be very useful. I admit that in my busy adult life, which is sprinkled with outdoor enthusiasm and old-fashioned childhood playfulness, I would like to see the Swiss Army knife of cell phones. It would be the durable splash-proof Nokia 5140, with its fitness-oriented feature set (including an integrated flashlight in case you lose your way in the locker room -- there's a joke in there somewhere), joined together with the BlackBerry organizer, iPod music, Canon-quality photos, Garmin navigation, and let-loose Nintendo-style fun.
Such a marvel would be the Holy Grail of handhelds.
But one has to consider: The Swiss Army knife -- with its capacity for doing many things, but no one thing superbly -- has not replaced the old-time screwdriver. So would the Holy Grail of handhelds replace the exceptional performance of dedicated units? There's no question that the iPod, BlackBerry, and GPSMAP all do what they do perhaps better than anything else out there on the market, and the respective makers of these products are benefiting from their success. So it may be that as the single-function screwdriver continues to be sold on store shelves, so, too, dedicated handheld units will continue to thrive.
Whatever the future brings, you don't have to worry about tossing out that shiny new Sony PSP anytime soon.
Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.