Convergence. A concept that a faithful few are still passionate about. Unfortunately, it is almost a meme in the linux community ever since Canonical dropped it. But why write about it?
One reason is because I think it is healthy when groups within the Linux community come together to share, be challenged, reflect, and reconsider their positions on various topics from time to time. Not only is it important to keep ideas sharp and see which ideas “win” over time (which is critical for a thriving community), it is also part of the process in growing into a more knowledgeable and experienced Linux user. I’ve personally seen this growth in myself as the result of partaking in community.
For example, Big Daddy Linux Live, or BDLL, is a great group of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds, experiences, and expertise coming together to talk Linux, test-run distros, and have some friendly (and sometimes fiery) banter. When our shared interest and unique perspectives CONVERGE (see what I did there?) the entire community benefits and the sum product (or in this case podcast) becomes greater than all the parts. This is why the podcast and now the community blog, is exciting and important. Many thanks to Rocco and all those who participate to make such a community possible.
In a similar fashion, when what we know about UX, software development, trends in consumer behavior, and mobile hardware advancements converge as a single product, a shift in how we interface with our devices can occur. In some ways, it already has.
But the main reason why I wanted to write about this is because the concept is so misunderstood. There has been many expressions of convergence dating back all the way to 2007. But only until recently did the concept have a resurgence. While I won’t rehash the ins and outs of Cannonical’s attempt at making their vision a reality, I will say that it did move the conversation forward in more ways than we realize. Even today we see expressions of the concept by many of the big tech companies; some are in plain sight while others are more nuanced.
- SIDE NOTE: If you want to get caught up on what Canonical tried to pull off, check out the following links:
- Crowd-sourcing video:
- Convergence vision before going to one code-base, essentially the same idea:
So indulge me, if you will, by allowing me to plead my case – the Case for Convergence.
Here are 3 major considerations when (re)thinking convergence and the future of how we use our devices.
CASE #1: CONVENIENCE
Unfortunately, the bright minds of the linux community can lose sight of the forest for the trees. For this reason I’ve found the need to really drive this point home because it is the foundation for the others I will make. And the point is this: Convenience is king…especially in a hyper-consumer driven society as ours. The psychological impact of convenience (whether true or perceived) is SEVERELY underestimated in our circles
For example, there was a time when many thought that the idea about bottling water and selling it was ridiculous. It is now a billion dollar market. While changing the oil in your car is pretty simple and straight forward, most people defer to get someone else to do it. And while building your own computer was a techy’s right of passage, these days people will just click and buy and not think twice about it. Why?
Just to drive this point home even more (because I can already hear the naysayers trying to dismiss this point) consider this: in just one – JUST ONE – generation we went from…
“Never go into a stranger’s car” to doing just that (UBER).
“Never take food from a stranger” to doing just that (UBER EATS/GRUB HUB/AMAZON DELIVERY)
“Never meet up with someone you met online” to swiping away and linking up (Tinder/Craigslist).
“You shouldn’t stay at a stranger’s home”. Meanwhile, families are planning their summer trips using Airbandb.
I’m only kidding but it really isn’t that much of an exaggeration.
At some point the Linux community just needs to take a long hard look at itself and own up to the fact that it isn’t the greatest judge of what works in consumer facing products for the average person. We have to remind ourselves that consumer behavior bends towards convenience.
So I repeat – convenience is king. And when the development process becomes so convenient, interesting shifts can then occur. For example, developer trends are telling us that they want to maintain fewer and fewer code bases. You know a foundational building block of convergence is here when even the Linux ecosystem yields to robust universal package management delivery systems like snaps (some talk about enabling this on Ubuntu on Dex) and flatpaks (attempting to enable in Purism OS).
While yes, we’ve seen these attempts before, it has not taken off like these have. This next layer of convenience for consumers will continue to pave the pathway for getting convergence right. It may be a stretch, but we see this with Electron. Despite how you feel about it, is extremely appealing and brought mainstream services to Linux.
If we can all accept the reasons why we had the tidal wave of cloud based services and mobile apps in the last decade (::cough, convenience and cost savings, cough cough::) then we should be open to the fact that it won’t stop there. Consumers will expect more of this seamless experience. And they will expect it from their phone (and developers will lead them there without realizing).
Something that usually does not come to mind when thinking about convergence is IoT. But the reality is our phones are becoming the IoT hub to manage all of our home connected devices. Do you think Google changed the name of their Google Cast App to Google Home to scratch a branding itch?
With IoT being THE big thing in tech for the next 15 to 20 years, our mobile device might be the main interface that manages the devices around us more and more. If tech companies have made managing our music, photos, documents, and IoT convenient (never mind if it is at the price of security or privacy – that is for another BDLL member to blog about), then why is it so hard to believe convergence can’t be made convenient via the right UX/UI implementation? For goodness sake, they made it easy to be a hub in managing our money! Think about it.
Everyday there are people telling Apple and Google, “Here! Take my debit card info so I can wave my phone like a magic wand at the register and pay for all the things!”
This deep sense of our mobile device becoming a core instrument of our human existence is only going to continue. And the “mobile first” development model that many use as a framework to create content and products will soon be “mobile only”. If we can’t see the signal from all the hamburger menus that have vomited on the scene of desktop version websites then, are we really looking?
CASE #2 CONVERGENCE IS ALREADY CATCHING ON
I believe the software and hardware stars are aligning and it can be very promising in the near future (within 5 years I would expect) to see viable convergent experiences.
While that might feel like forever in tech-time, I would argue that convergence is catching on without the general population realizing it in the meantime. It is just that no one has actually named it for them (yet).
For example, many popular productivity and entertainment apps are available on native desktop applications, web browsers, and mobile apps.
Even the management and settings of such software automatically syncing data/profiles to seem like it is one experience instead of manually setting up individually adds to that seamless and friction-less user experience. This type of UX is a hallmark of Convergence. While it isn’t pure convergence, it is a psychological stepping stone that users will see as a bridge.
In addition to this, more and more people are converting to mobile first framework of getting things done. Even the infamous baby boomer generation who vowed to never use a smartphone are now trading in their laptops for tablets and Chromebooks (a device I define as being in between a tablet and a laptop). For millennials there is a trend of doing more and more on their plus size mobile devices and using their tablets less and less.
Lastly, this upcoming generation is the first generation to grow up with mobile devices. And thanks to Google’s infiltration-I mean deeply discounted services for K-12, their sense of delineation of where mobile UX ends and pc/laptop UX begins will only get more blurred.
While I doubt anyone in the BDLL community would buy into Tim Cook’s propaganda of the iPad Pro being on par, if not better, than an actual personal computer, some are. And in many cases, where Apple goes, so goes the tech industry. It is as if convergence is in the air, but we just can’t see it encroaching little by little.
CASE #3 CAPABLE HARDWARE
Speaking of hardware, I now make my final case for convergence: capable hardware. Apple’s latest release of the iPad pro has incredible processing power (it will be a matter of time until their apps catch up to leverage that power) and battery life. It is so impressive, even JB’s own Chris Fisher was raving about it on recent episodes of Coder Radio. There is no denying that convergent capable hardware from a processing power perspective is here.
Even if you don’t plan on doing major video editing on a tablet, which I admit would not be a typical convergent computing use case, I can easily see it handling the basic user’s needs. It is undeniable that the specs on many devices shipping today are more than capable of handling those demands. Some mobile devices are shipping with 8 gigs of ram with octa-core processors along with 125 gigs of storage.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro is a nearly convergent device that has gained popularity (tablet and computer in one). While they dropped Continuum (thank goodness), you can see a power-play being set up as they integrate linux as part of their core strategy to run on multiple platforms (and try to feel like one seamless experience, a hallmark of convergence).
Even Google has released 2 in 1 devices that port Android apps into the ChromeOS ecosystem. While they are trying to polish the experience, it is only a matter of time until they nail it.
Of course, we can’t have a conversation about convergence without bringing up Samsung devices like the S8 – S10 devices and the Dexpad. For those who don’t know, Samsung released their interpretation of convergence with the help of this little device that attempts to make the hook up and PC experience 1st class. Whether it accomplishes it is another story. But there is something to be said about a company who releases a 2nd iteration of a product (Dexpad 2) and enlists the most successful Linux distribution to help execute it (ubuntu 16.04).
Again, it is important to remember that early iterations of ANY personal computing paradigms were ALWAYS awkward and somewhat disjointed. If it survived a few iterations, it usually had a fighting chance. I think we are in that stage right now where people are evaluating the possibilities. Personally, I think it looks very promising.
Ladies and gentlemen. I respectfully submit to you that we have all the ingredients for Convergence right now. We are just waiting someone to make an award winning recipe. In closing, just remember this: I never once said a convergent device will be our end all be all device for personal computing. I never once said convergence means painfully using gimp on a mobile screen and calling it awesome. Task specific computers will always be around like gaming and video editing machines.
I simply made my case that convergence is possible. We are closer to convergence than we think. When presented in the right context and delivery, most will find what they didn’t know they were missing. And my heart is that an open source project or community leads average users into this new epoch of personal computing…and NOT a major corporation that makes them pay in sacrificing their privacy and security.
If you can’t tell by now, I am pretty passionate about this topic. If you read this far, then I truly am appreciative of your time and attention. But I have to make a confession before I finish pleading my case. My passion for convergence is not JUST because I want to see an open source company or project be an industry leader in this space; it isn’t because I thought Canonical’s vision of convergence was the best and I want to see it comeback (although I do think they had it right, just not the right execution); it is simply because I am a selfish futurist that wants what I know will be – right now.
I long for the day of locking my phone in a dock at work and jumping right in my projects. I can’t wait for the day that after I put the kids to bed, I go to my office and pick up right where I left off without having to boot up another device, or relaunch another set of applications. In short, I want my life to be simpler, not more complicated. I want to free and unleash my devices to serve me, not barely tolerate the artificial limitations placed by large multinational corporations that not only disrespect my freedoms, by actively engage in suppressing it.
We are Linux users. We haven’t settled for anything less in enterprise or desktop (e.g. look how far we’ve come in gaming). Why have we settled on such a low bar on mobile? Why settle for what others call normal? Isn’t that what Linux users have been known for? Being called crazy for challenging the status quo? Only to champion a new vision for the future and wait for others to catch up to us? (Hello, Microsoft!
I know this might be a little crazy or unreasonable to think this way but, sometimes, crazy is just code for progress. Or more eloquently put,
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
-George Bernard Shaw