Welcome to convergence. Welcome to divergence.
That, I believe, will be the conflicting theme of consumer electronic devices over the next year or so, as the race to find the new killer platform continues.
Obviously, my thoughts were heavily influenced by today's announcement from Apple about the second-generation AppleTV--you know, the one that used to be the hobby until someone at Apple figured out that hey, maybe this Netflix streaming thing seems to be catching on. (Perhaps the clue was the ubiquitous empty Blockbuster brick-and-mortar down the street.)
Regardless of its origins, the big buzz-word out of today's announcement was "convergence"--that wonderfully cool-sounding phrase that applies to whenever someone takes two things (Phones + computers, TV + Internet, peanut butter + chocolate...) and puts them together to form something that ideally is more than the sum of its parts.
I have nothing against the notion of convergence--save for a journalist's general distaste for all things buzzwordy. I like devices that fall into this category. But the recent cold war between all things Apple and all things Android is a vivid reminder of how Apple got its butt handed to it during the PC/Mac wars.
With the iPad, the iPod, and all the other i-devices, Apple is very good at coming up with brilliant devices (usually) that make consumers drool with anticipation. Today's announcement may be no exception.
But waiting in the wings are dozens of hardware manufacturers who are going to match and exceed the functionality of whatever Apple comes up with--and they'll use Android or MeeGo to do it.
And that, ultimately, is Apple's problem: their continued insistence to own the devices they release to the market without giving away anything to other companies. They don't share designs and they don't share code. Heck, they don't even sell the rights to anything they've come up with. If you put Apple on an open source scale with Microsoft, even Microsoft is more open than Apple.
Meanwhile, you have Google chugging away at Android, and Nokia and Intel working at MeeGo--two operating systems with dissimilar approaches and one very common characteristic: any manufacturer can pick them up and use them for to-market projects.
So yes, we'll have convergence of devices, and very likely it will be Apple leading the way. But it will not be long before the commoditization of the Linux-based operating systems that compete with Apple will lead to a whole host of replica devices--some bad, some good, and some better than anything Apple places on the market. '
That, then, will be the divergence. Sure, there'll be a common OS, but hardware manufacturers love their proprietary gadgets and gizmos, so interoperability between devices even in the same class (say, tablets) will be patchy at best.
Which approach is the best one? Ultimately, the more open market is better because it can respond to consumer demand a lot faster than a single-company approach. We saw that with the PCs over the Macs, and I believe we'll see it again in the device market. Except it will be Linux-based devices leading the way.