Portable technology is starting to overlap. Although most devices are still bought and sold separately, many of them now have overlapping capabilities. As the overlap between gadgets increases, there will be less and less reason to buy individual items to do tasks when an item that has the same capability as several gadgets combined can be purchased.

Affected Devices

The portable electronic gadgets that are most likely to be affected by this merging are the following:

Digital Camcorders
Digital Cameras
Ebook Readers
GPS (Global Positioning System)
Laptop Computers
Mobile Phones
MP3 Players
Tablet Computers

Each of these has both advantages and disadvantages.

Digital Camcorders

Camcorder(99279)Credit: MorguefileAdvantages: As they are dedicated video devices, camcorders do this very well.

Disadvantages: Video is what these devices do, nothing else. Transfer of the media to other devices usually requires either a physical connection or memory card.



Digital Cameras

Digital Camera(99268)Credit: eGDC LtdAdvantages: As they are dedicated cameras, rather than just a camera addition to another gadget, the picture quality is better, due to various camera specific features, such as focusing, flash and compensation for movement. This especially true for the high end digital cameras rather than those at the lower end, although high end cameras are really for professionals or dedicated amateurs.

Disadvantages: Again, pictures and video are the only things they do, and in the majority of cases, transferring the media to another device requires either a physical connection, or the removal of a physical memory card, rather than connection options such as Bluetooth that other devices have. Cameras built into newer smartphones commonly have autofocus and flash.

Ebook Readers

Kindle TouchCredit: AmazonAdvantages: Battery life, ebook readers have the longest battery life of any of the portable devices. Most other devices can last for a few hours of continuous usage; most ebook readers can last for days or weeks, due to their low power requirements. Ebook readers will often fit inside a pocket, and the display format reduces eyestrain for reading books. Size, although ebook readers are not as small as mobile phones, many pure readers will fit into a pocket.

Disadvantages: Pure ebook readers only do one thing really well, and that's display ebooks. Some readers may have internet capability, but the browsers tend to be monochrome and limited. The cost of a high end ebook reader can be comparable to a low end tablet.

GPS (Global Positioning System)

GPS(99270)Credit: MorguefileAdvantages: Hand held GPS devices are easily portable, and have a decent battery life. They are also fairly cheap. The screen on most GPS devices is bigger than that on most mobiles.

Disadvantages: GPS capability is becoming more common in smartphones, making a separate GPS increasingly irrelevant. Although more expensive GPS devices have other capabilities, these are overlapped by other devices with broader functionality, such as smartphones.


Laptop Computers

Laptop(99276)Credit: SXC.HUAdvantages: Both the monitor and keyboard are of a decent size, increasing ease of use. The monitor can also be adjusted to be at a different angle to the keyboard, reducing physical strain. Increased size means increased computing power, memory and storage and a lower price for that power.

Disadvantages: Size. The laptop is the least portable of all the devices.



Mobile Phones (Smartphones)

Samsung Android PhoneCredit: eGDC LtdAdvantages: Truly portable, they will easily fit in the pocket. There are usually a lot of ways of transferring the data from a mobile; removal of memory cards, physical connection to another device, WiFi and Bluetooth connection to other devices and various internet related means. Smartphones also overlap many other portable gadgets, such as MP3 players, GPS and cameras.

Disadvantages: Both the keyboard and screen are too small, and increasing the size decreases the portability. Computing power is very low, and so is storage (although that can often be expanded). Modern memory cards can often fit gigabytes of data in a very small size. The small size also means that they are more expensive for the power. Touch screens also get greasy quickly.





MP3 Players

MP3 PlayerCredit: MorguefileAdvantages: Although size varies, they are all portable and will easily fit in your pocket, many being substantially smaller than even mobile phones. Battery life is often better than other devices, especially at the lower end where all they do is play MP3s. Low end MP3 players are very cheap.

Disadvantages: May not even have a screen or keyboard. Higher end MP3 players seriously overlap smartphones and small tablets. Touch screens, for those higher end MP3 players that use them, also get greasy quickly.


Netbook(99275)Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HP_2133_Mini-Note_PC_%28front_view_compare_with_pencil%29.jpgAdvantages: They have a proper keyboard and screen, so are easier to use. They typically have more power and memory than anything else below a laptop in size.

Disadvantages: Top end netbooks are more expensive than many laptops; there is a small decrease in size that tends to cause a substantial increase in cost.



Tablet Computers

Blackberry PlaybookCredit: AmazonAdvantages: Tablets are larger than mobiles, so the screen is bigger and, although the keyboard takes up part of the screen in the same way as with mobiles, this is also bigger, making the tablet easier to use.

Disadvantages: Price, tablets are very expensive for their computing power compared to bigger devices. Size, neither the keyboard nor screen is big enough for more than casual use. Power and storage is nowhere near that of a laptop. Although tablets vary in size, many are too big to be truly portable, not being able to fit in a pocket and requiring almost as much space as a laptop. Touch screens also get greasy quickly.


Ebook readers and tablet computers are already starting to seriously overlap. The latest Kindle ebook reader, the Kindle Fire, is actually a tablet computer, not an ebook reader. The ebook reader is probably going to be one of the first to go, probably when tablet computers start having better battery life and less eye strain when used. I actually recently replaced my Sony Reader with a Blackberry PlayBook, because the latter had internet capabilities that the Sony didn't, allowing it to be used to read online articles and blogs easily.

The market for digital cameras and camcorders will also start decreasing. Most newer mobiles perform the same functions as a digital camera at the level that the average user will need. Although you can buy a 50 megapixel digital camera, casual - and many professional - users have absolutely no need for this amount of resolution. Standard computer monitors don't even have this degree of resolution. As customers realise that they don't need a dedicated camera, they will become less popular.

Of all the current mobile gadgets in use, currently they are quite likely to eventually boil down to one - the mobile phone. Current high end, or not so high end, smartphones can already do what digital cameras, MP3 players, GPS and camcorders can at a level suitable for most users, and some are also starting to overlap tablet computers also.

Desktop Computers

Desktop computers are not going to be fully replaced by this trend, no matter what Apple thinks (it appears that arrogance and a tendency to make statements that are nonsense are a company trait, rather than a personal trait of the late Steve Jobs). The casual user market for desktops is going to shrink, as casual users do migrate to portable platforms, and desktops are more likely to continue merging with larger, fixed entertainment devices such as televisions and games consoles.

Tablet Computers

The problem current large tablet computers have - such as the iPad - is that they are essentially a more expensive, less convenient (no keyboard or monitor), less powerful, harder to use and more fragile version of the laptop. They are not going to, by themselves, replace the desktop without extensive docking technology to make them directly compete - in other words, plug in a keyboard, monitor, more storage space and more processing power. Namely, buid a destop around it. If you can do that, you may as well do it to a mobile, because at least the mobile will fit in your pocket.

Current tablets are great for casual use, but if you are wanting to do anything more serious, they can't handle the software, don't have enough storage and really are not comfortable to work at (and quite probably unhealthy from a physical point of view), because the screen and keyboard are at exactly the same angle. There is a reason why laptops have a fold up monitor.

Size Problems

Laptop, Tablet and MobileCredit: eGDC LtdThe problem all mobile devices have is size. On the one hand, the technology needs to be as small as possible, so it will easily fit in the pocket. On the other, it needs to be large enough to use easily. Mobiles and many tablets are too small to use properly (or, in some cases, too large to be actually convenient) and laptops are too big to be as easily portable - they won't fit in your pocket. Decreasing the size also tends to decrease capability, increase cost or both.

The screen and the keyboard are the main limiters here. On the more modern smartphones and tablets, the keyboard may take up part of the touch screen, meaning that, as well as they keyboard being too small to properly type on, even on the bigger tablets, it also takes up half the viewing area as well. Alternatively, some smartphones have a slide out keyboard that will give a keyboard about twice the size of that of a touch screen whilst keeping the viewing area intact. Some phones, such as BlackBerrys, have a permanent keyboard under the screen, but this permanently limits both screen size and keyboard size.

The only way around this is to either plug in a keyboard and a monitor of whatever type, as well as any other external devices such as storage, or buy a laptop.

Projection Keyboards

Laser KeyboardCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Laser-keyboard.jpgOne way around the problem for keyboards - which is also possible with the mouse and other manual input devices - is the projection keyboard. The projection keyboard is currently a peripheral, usually connected to the device by either Bluetooth or USB, that projects a virtual keyboard onto a flat surface.

There are a number of different types of projection keyboard, such as map reflection coordinates, template projection and reference plane illumination, but the principle behind how they all operate is the same. The virtual keyboard, mouse or whatever is projected onto a surface by means such as a laser, and a sensor or camera detects the users finger movements. The position of the fingers is then determined by the device so, should the user press "a" on the virtual keyboard, the device records the letter "a" as being pressed, in the same way a normal keyboard would. A virtual mouse could be more like a virtual touch pad, of the type seen on laptops. Clicking might be harder to determine though.

Projection keyboards have actually been around for some time, the first being patented by IBM in 1992[1], but the technology still suffers from some problems, especially in bright light. The lack of user feedback for actions - the feel when a key is pressed for example - is also a problem. Projection keyboards are still separate devices, which increases the amount of items carried, although they are smaller than actual keyboards. It will probably not be long before projection keyboards are actually built into devices themselves, rather than being separate peripherals.

Flexible Keyboards

Flexible KeyboardCredit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Foldable_keyboard.jpgFlexible or roll-up keyboards are an alternative to the various projection keyboards. They are not as compact as those keyboards that have no actual physical interface, but they can be rolled up to be quite a lot smaller than standard keyboards. Being an actual physical keyboard, they do not suffer from the light related problems suffered by the various types of projection keyboards.


Unfortunately, there does not as yet appear to be anything similar for monitors, although projection technology such as is seen in a cinema would work, but this would be even more susceptible to problems in strong light. Two other options for monitors would be a holographic display (still more science fiction than science fact) or a flexible pull out display; essentially a very thin flexible LCD display or similar that would remain wrapped up in the device until needed, then pulled out, increasing screen size.

The Cloud

Cloud Computing(99284)Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cloud_computing.svgCloud software and storage is one way around the memory limitations, especially storage, of portable devices. With an internet connection (The Cloud is itself a name for the Internet in cloud computing), all work can be stored online, with the added benefit that that work can now be accessed from multiple devices. Cloud storage is mostly beneficial for smaller files and projects currently. Storing several hundred gigabytes online usually requires a fairly expensive monthly fee. The price will no doubt continue to decrease; it's possible to store several GB online now for free, using services such as Dropbox and Windows SkyDrive.

Cloud software is still mostly at the lower end, such as word processors and spreadsheets, Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) being a good example of an online office tools suite as well as now having cloud storage, and you are still limited to at least some extent by the capabilities of the device being used. This will also no doubt improve in time.

The Future

The device that does everything, fits in your pocket or is at least easily and conveniently portable, has the capabilities, computing power and memory to do all your work on and has a human sized screen and keyboard (no matter how all this is done, projecting a screen onto the retina through a pair of glasses would work) is not here yet. It certainly isn't the tablet computer, as useful as those can be at times. It is coming though, but it may not even be anything considered here. It could be smart clothing, or even cybernetic implants. Watch this space.