During the perennial frenzy that precedes each new iteration of iPhone, one prediction has become a relative certainty: Apple is about to devour yet another product category.
This time, it's the fitness tracker, a broad class of body-monitoring gadgets that flooded the market within the past couple of years, with bold promises of analyzing how often and how well we exercise and rest, and therefore upgrading our health. Rumors aside, we know that the newest version of Apple's iOS platform will include a health app, and it's widely expected that, by virtue of new sensors and software, the iPhone 6 will turn all of those tracking wristbands, pocket-size dongles and other devices into ungainly, over-specialized relics of a brief, bygone trend. The Fitbit, the Fitbug, even Nike's Fuelband, are dead gadgets walking.
We've seen this before with Apple. The original iPhone ate the iPod, and all other dedicated MP3 players, when it debuted in 2007. For many, the iPhone has since destroyed the radio, replacing both terrestrial and satellite broadcasts with streaming audio and podcast subscriptions. For others, the touchscreen smartphone has made hardcopy newspapers and books seem like so much antiquated clutter. The phones that flowed from the original iPhone have turned video games into a fully mainstream pastime, while also supplanting much of the appeal of handheld game systems from Nintendo or Sony. And the once-proud, rapidly declining camera industry is struggling to stay relevant in the smartphone era, as the iPhone and its photo-editing and sharing apps stalk an ever-dwindling field of standalone shooters. This is how Apple's most popular product stays innovative, and desirable — by killing and consuming other products.
The more optimistic term for this is device convergence, the compression of multiple kinds of doodads into a single, feature-rich uber-doodad. And there's no doubting the breadth and scope of the iPhone's convergent talents. Doubters have probably never found themselves stranded in an airport, frantically swiping through flight status alerts on airline-specific apps and e-mail exchanges with co-workers and family, before whiling away hours with an emergency download of a novel or TV show. While most any smartphone can juggle these kinds of tasks, the iPhone's comparatively rock-solid operating system and huge selection of apps makes convergence look easy.
But fitness tracking, it now seems, is forcing Apple to do what it rarely has: embrace device divergence.
We're talking about the company's much-hyped smart watch, which will supposedly offer many of the same features as other products in this nascent class — bouncing texts, alerts and other notifications to a display on your wrist — as well as health-related sensors. The iPhone's existing gyroscopes and accelerometers, in other words, aren't capable of providing robust health and fitness tracking.
Don't expect Apple CEO Tim Cook to admit as much on stage, but the problem with convergence is that old cliché: a jack of all trades is a master of none. There are many devices that are simply better as discrete, divergent products, than the app-powered versions available on the iPhone. Fitness tracking is only the most recent example. It's hard enough to find the right armband case or non-embarrassing fanny pack to securely carry a phone during exercise. Having to press new, built-in contact sensors against your skin is simply too much to ask, and defeats the purpose of many fitness trackers, which is to disappear into your daily life, monitoring without nagging. And those devices that don't nag and have even become a style accessory — like FitBit — give only the most rudimentary data (steps). If the iPhone 6 will actually be a family of models that includes significantly larger screen sizes, the sensing aspect of fitness tracking has to be offloaded into a separate device.
But the same could be said for any number of other product categories. Take e-readers, for example. Not the LCD-display tablets that sometimes call themselves e-readers, but the low-power, ultra-durable e-ink devices, like Kindle's PaperWhite or Kobo's Aura HD. Whatever the final resolution of the new iPhone turns out to be, e-ink is still easier on the eyes during long reading sessions, and less likely to disturb your sleep when reading before sleep, than any LCD screen. E-ink also allows devices to run for weeks at a time, rather than hours. The result is a product that doesn't punish your eyeballs for becoming immersed in a novel, or interrupt extended reading experiences by powering down (or threatening to).
And then there are cameras, possibly the most prominent victims of the iPhone-led trend towards device convergence. The iPhone 6 is rumored to capture as many as 13 megapixels, and possibly boast some sort of optical image stabilization, meaning that the sensor, or lens, or both will physically move to counteract motion, delivering sharper photos and videos. That's great news for those situations where a phone is all you have to shoot with. But there's still no competing with the optical majesty of a big lens, and the detail-gathering, darkness-piercing power of a big image sensor. Sony's RX100 III compact fits in a pocket (though with a serious bulge) and disappears in a bag, while offering a relatively massive f1.8 lens and 20-megapixel sensor, which combine to work miracles in low light conditions, and generally capture images that will look great at large sizes. The iPhone and its ilk are perfect for the Instagram age, which they helped usher in. But a standalone camera's shots are more likely to be timeless, and to survive the current fad of commemorating major events with tiny images.
That e-readers and cameras are arguably better at their jobs than a phone hasn't stopped consumers from accepting compromise, and either squinting at long-form writing or taking low-quality snapshots, the digital equivalent of the pictures we used to capture with disposable film cameras. Convergence breeds compromise. Which is why, for those of us who obsess about such things, it's nice to see Apple's march towards gadget unification halted by something as humble as the fitness tracker, and as seemingly flimsy as the smart watch trend.
Apple's smart watch is proof that there isn't always an app for that. Or there is, but it might be a disappointment, compared to a product whose industrial design makes it a master of one or two tasks. Zoom back even further, and it's a rare victory for hardware. The smartphone revolution isn't over, but it's important to understand its limitations, and the specific instances where software falls short.
Make no mistake, the iPhone 6 will hunt down the Fitbit, and pick its bones clean. But it won't do it alone. The iPhone will need backup, from a device that runs in the same pack, but has its own unique role skill set. If this is the beginning of a trend away from convergence, and back towards divergent hardware, then Apple might be more innovative than ever.
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