Thoughts on “convergence” in platforms

tl;dr: Convergence is a “white elephant” that platforms chase, only to realize there is little appeal. If it’s not a lark, it puts everything else at stake.

One of the biggest buzzwords is “convergence” – the idea that with some additional cables or gadgets, you can turn your smartphone into a laptop. Platform makers have been targeting such a thing for years, pouring millions and changing platforms for it. Yet after all of this investment, there has been very little buy-in from consumers. Why is this?

Examples. The earliest “modern” smartphone to attempt convergence was the Motorola Atrix. Consumers could buy a “lapdock” to insert the phone into. While the phone ran Android, the lapdock environment was a typical GNU/Linux desktop with tweaks, with little integration into the Android environment. The biggest issue with the lapdock, however, was the price. With the dock priced like a laptop at $400, reviewers often wondered why one wouldn’t buy a cheap laptop to pair with a smartphone. (The lapdock had a second life for hardware modders.)

Canonical thought of turning Ubuntu into an ecosystem, including phones, servers, desktops, and TVs. The Unity desktop environment, introduced in 2011, was intended to bring convergence so Ubuntu phones could become Ubuntu laptops/desktops. However, Canonical hit hard times and had to focus on desktops, servers, and embedded due to lack of market interest in phones. Ubuntu phones are now maintained by the community.

Microsoft has been working on convergence as a product since Windows 8, but they’ve been interested in the ideas for years, between products like Windows Mobile and its predecessors, and prototypes like Courier. Windows 8 promised convergence between desktop-experience and tablets, which was controversial enough for Microsoft to walk back from many of the changed made in Windows 8. They kept going for the concept though – this time, to unify Windows 10 on phones and desktop-experience. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long, as Microsoft gave up on Windows Mobile, but the changes made for tablet and phone convergence still left their mark on Windows 10, for better or for worse.

Samsung has DeX for convergence. While it is focused on Android apps on the big screen and ways to integrate between them, it had (emphasis on had) support for Linux desktop applications. I’m not as familiar with DeX as I am the other entries here, so I’ll be glossing over it.

Now Purism is hoping that convergence will be a big factor for people to buy their Librem 5 smartphone, based on GNU/Linux. There has been significant effort to refactor the Gnome stack for mobile with things like libhandy and phosh.

Why they fail. This is the opinion part. I have two big reasons why these efforts keep failing and why there hasn’t been any real successful efforts at mobile-desktop convergence:

  • Inevitably, it requires additional accessories. Even if you wirelessly project the display and have Bluetooth input, these are things you’ll need to remember to bring with you or keep charged. Alternatively, docking is another idea – but when the docks are expensive as a laptop, why not just… bring a laptop? You almost certainly have a laptop anyways, and it takes up the same amount of space as the required phone accessories would.
  • Low customer demand. I definitely get that the idea is appealing, and customer demand may be wrong (the faster horses problem). However, it could simply be many companies are working on an idea that seems feasible, realistic, and desirable – yet is impractical and undesirable on the market. (See also: hydrogen cars, FED/SED) Despite this, the temptation for “a single device for everything” is really powerful, particularly amongst the gadget nerd crowd. It seems likely to me the allure amongst the kind of people who talk about phones online is different from those who buy phones.

Aftershock. The other kind of failure isn’t with the mobile platform, but the other platforms it has to converge with. Much has been written about the distaste for the full-screen touch-oriented “Metro” applications on desktop (my friends “lovingly” call it tileworld). While Windows 10 looked like it walked this back on a surface level. In reality, Microsoft doubled down harder on the APIs used convergence, now UWP – even after the convergent mobile platform had died! UWP has had a rough start and remains controversial, with most applications and users preferring the older Windows API for applications, though it still has a use as the Xbox uses UWP now.

Aces in the hole. Sometimes it feels like convergence isn’t really thought out, but used as a trump card by minority platforms. This comes at the expense of other priorities, and when push comes to shove, can easily be severed without affecting direction or the bottom line – usually proving it was a bolt-on. I think Ubuntu’s convergence efforts tended to end up like this – an attempt to add differentiating factors to the platform. It didn’t really pan out due to how hard mobile is to enter, and the fact it was purely tangential for Canonical. Likewise, the convergence features in Windows Mobile 10 felt like a last-ditch effort at relevancy, before Microsoft pulled the plug. (As someone who enjoyed their Windows Phone, it was a shame to see it flounder in the end.)

Purism’s attempt at entering the mobile space feels a bit more interesting, because there’s stakes. They’ve IMHO, overextended themselves trying to provide so many different products and services (from originally providing just laptops to attempting to launch a phone, its ecosystem, and cloud services); it feels like missteps from Librem 5 could kill the company as they chase the dream. According to their former CTO, they also made some naive mistakes, including overly complicated manufacturing. It feels like they’ve been trying to reinvent the wheel too with things like libhandy, instead of trying to invest in and assist already existing efforts like Plasma Mobile. (libhandy has been adopted by elementary and Gnome however, so the NIH may be gone.) That’s a shame, because what Purism does (ready-made open/privacy-respecting phone) is interesting if they can pull it off, more so than the tinker toys Pine will sell you.

Sometimes they’re used for looking good on the spec-sheet, but rarely have a consistent story to them, which makes them a hard sell without a long-term plan for how the ecosystem will pan out. The Motorola Atrix felt like this, considering how wildly different it behaved platform-wise between OS versions. I have a suspicion DeX is also ending up like this – how deeply does Samsung care about DeX? Enough to try to turn it into a staple feature or ecosystem?

Alternative approaches. Apple has famously resisted attempts at crossing form factors; calling desktop-experience tablets “toaster fridges.” Instead of convergence, Apple provides facilities for existing devices to complement each other and hand over state (like music playback or a draft email) to another device, what in marketing speak they call continuity. The free software desktop has some direction on this kind of integration with projects like KDE Connect.

The other aspect of Apple’s emphasis of continuity over convergence is the low-level aspects of the platform are shared, but frontends specific to each platform. In a properly structured application, it’s simply a matter of having shared classes (in Apple world, CoreFoundation and higher level APIs like Core Data) and separate code for UIKit (iOS) vs. AppKit (macOS).

This is strict separation is starting to crack though; Catalyst, formerly Marzipan applications provide a unified UI toolkit for iOS and macOS based on UIKit. However, Catalyst seems to make greater concessions towards the desktop side, such as trying to look like other AppKit applications, menus and all. Time will tell if the Mac-side specialization will be extended or if this is only for simple applications that can run on either platform.

Historical approaches. Before wireless data was ubiquitous to synchronize data over, one had to synchronize data between a desktop and mobile device manually; the obvious example being Palm Desktop to manage your Palm Pilot. This usually emphasized this difference in design philosophy between a desktop and mobile. (But this didn’t always happen; Windows CE certainly tried to be the Windows you already knew, but smaller.) I tend to think manual sync is a big mental burden (especially back when they stored data on volatile RAM) and an unnecessary ceremony; the Hiptop begun the trend of “just works” automatic wireless sync in the early 2000’s.

Instead of trying to sell phones that can become laptops, some were trying to sell laptops that required phones. In the primordial days of smartphones before Android, the closest attempt at convergence as we’d call it today was the Foleo. Unlike later convergent devices, this was technically a standalone device, capable of doing things under its own locomotion (running Linux on an ARM CPU), but required a Palm phone to be useful. The press and public alike panned the Foleo, and it was cancelled as Palm struggled in the new era of smartphones bought by the iPhone. While people point out it could have been the first netbook, I think it has more in common with later convergent devices in terms of intent. (Another possible example of this school of thought is the BlackBerry PlayBook, which actually launched, but flopped hard.)

Convergence from the opposite end. While not quite convergence because it didn’t involve another mobile device, I’ll mention Windows SideShow. In a world before mobile devices becoming common, the idea of being able to quickly “peek” into notifications was intriguing. However, little hardware came out for it, the feature was barely promoted, and smartphones effectively obsoleted it – a typical fate for features debuting in Vista. Ironically, this is basically the opposite of convergence – instead of your phone being able to gain features on a bigger screen, it’s your laptop losing features on a smaller screen.

What’s next? I wonder how else one can smooth out the experiences between our many diverse devices. At times, it’s absurd to have to rely on more computers to move information around two very different form factor devices. While I’ve made it clear I don’t think convergence is viable, at least as we know it (someone could always manage to figure it out). Even as someone deeply interested in the possibilities, I find it hard to come up with what could be different. Mobile computing is arguably young yet consolidated around a few platforms and form factors quickly, and we never figured out sharing of anything other than the low level substrate.

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