Mixed future in store for multifunction devices

12 Dec 2005

As portable devices move away from their single-function origins to having several features, this trend raises several questions for what consumer electronics handhelds will look like in the future, a leading market analyst has said.

Certain mobile phones can now play MP3 files; the latest digital music players come with video and photo viewing features and palmtop devices such as PDAs are able to handle tasks as diverse as receiving email, taking pictures, organising schedules and making phone calls.

According to Chris Charron, research director of devices, media, and marketing research with Forrester, current trends in portable multitasking devices raise some questions for the future of consumer electronics.

In a briefing note, Charron argued that the BlackBerry mobile email device won’t displace the laptop. “The BlackBerry works for short correspondence like email, but for productivity like calendar and contact management and for voice, its small size is a shortcoming that it can’t overcome,” he said. “Most consumers won’t use a BlackBerry to read documents of any length or to play active multiplayer games such as Doom.”

Charron was less clear as to whether new mobile phones could replace MP3 players, giving the question an equivocal “maybe”. Although manufacturers Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson have moved this market on a stage, the mobile music experience that these devices deliver still don’t compare with that of Apple’s iPod, he said. “Device-makers will have to up the ante on mobile storage, software, and processing speed to get consumers to reach for their cell phones when they want to hear Eminem’s Curtain Call album. And with the PC currently at the centre of the consumer digital music experience, cell phones will need to operate as smoothly and seamlessly with the PC as an MP3 player – or consumers will continue to opt for their iPods,” he added.

He advised manufacturers to focus on the main function of their portable device and not to get sidetracked with additional capabilities. Any new features included on the device, such as cameras on mobile phones, shouldn’t detract from what the handheld was originally built to do, he suggested.

Charron added that the current fashion for multitasking machines doesn’t automatically mean failure for well-purposed, functionally focused gadgets. “Devices that combine portable form with focused, collectively appropriate functions – such as Sony’s PlayStation Portable gaming and audio/video functions – will conquer their target markets,” he concluded.

By Gordon Smith