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Product categories - who needs them?

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As someone who has been following technology for the better part of two decades, I admit to some confusion when I put on my technology analyst hat these days.

Higher levels of technical integration are of course inevitable. It reduces manufacturing costs (at least in theory) and often leads to more functionality per area/volume/weight/power etc. of the consumer products that many of us love to, well, consume.

Presumably it lowers the cost for us tech-hungry consumers too – no longer do I have to buy separate doodads for playing music, taking pictures, making calls, sending email, reading books, watching movies, playing video games, finding my precise latitude and longitude anywhere on the planet, and reading the latest reviews of the restaurant down the street. It’s all right there in my smart phone or tablet, although even that line is rapidly blurring.

Is this old news? Sure. But where does it end? Aren’t we losing something at the expense of all this product integration?

What triggered this line of thought was the unveiling of the new Nintendo Wii U console slated for release in 2012. To be honest, the hardware doesn’t seem to be anything to write home about. What got me was the new controller. Although it’s been rumoured for awhile, we finally got a look at it this week. If you’re interested, you can check it out here: http://e3.nintendo.com/hw/#/introduction

The controller? It’s a tablet. Yes, it includes the iconic Nintendo control pads on the sides. But with a 6.2” touch screen, untethered use as a stand-alone platform, web browsing ability, microphone, speakers, and facing camera, I call it a tablet.

Back to my earlier comment about losing something at the expense of integration. For me, it’s user experience. How we interact with our doodads. Personally, I like the original Wii remote. It enabled innovative and intuitive interaction that I just don’t see possible from a tablet.

Same goes for my stand-alone camera, GPS, and iPod. I like the industrial designs and interfaces that are made possible because they are intended for a single application.

My prediction? In the next 2-3 years we’re going to see a flood of new ‘integrated’ products claiming to do everything – and failing to gain traction with consumers. Maybe they really will do everything – but they just won’t do it well. Who needs product categories? I do – and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

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