All the wanna-be marketing geniuses that write in trade rags, for decades, have always argued in favor of “convergence”, the idea that the public only wants one do-everything device or application. Back in the heady days when PCs were new, stereos were going to disappear, TVs would disappear, printers and scanners would be built into the PC, and so forth. But it really took smartphones for this idea to hit with a vengeance. An iPhone will do it all and that’s the only device people will want. No one is going to want a handheld GPS even though it can contain maps and trails when you’re out in the woods away from a connection to download maps and its batteries can survive a week-long backpacking trip. No one will want a camera since the crappy little camera in a smartphone is all you need (for lousy pictures, a real lens kinda makes a difference that Instagram can’t replace). No one will want a laptop or desktop because the iPad can do it all (badly, in many cases). And of course we don’t need wired connections or even broadband since everyone knows 9G is just around the corner and all those delays you have now will be a thing of the past. No need for TV anymore since anything can be streamed through wireless, assuming you don’t mind constant buffering hiccups or congested servers. This concept is pervasive and partly right but also partly wrong.
But when it comes to social media websites, more is better. Today we have whole classes of web sites or web services (to connect your app) that are very slightly different from each other, yet all are going to go gangbusters and make early investors a fortune. Somehow we manage to see major distinctions between blogging, discussion boards, Facebook, Twitter, messaging, file storage, url clipping, news clipping, and photo sites, even though the difference in the “technology” between these sites is, as one wanker I knew once said, “a few lines of code”. And Brad is mostly right in this case. Any of these sites could easily subsume the functions of the other. WordPress.com, with just a few plugins, could easily provide most of the functionality of dozens of other sites. Yet somehow the pundits don’t see “convergence” as the inevitable outcome.
We even have the backward trend of “apps”, as though these are something magical. For decades the idea was to incorporate everything in a single “platform”, i.e. an extensible browser. HTML5, scripting, and UI libraries (widgets) will solve all needs in a single piece of software, no need for specialized applications. Yet on smartphone apps (single-purpose and trivial software) is all the rage. People collect apps and fill up their phones with slightly different bits of software the way wine collectors fill up caves. So no convergence here.
So why, with our devices, is convergence inevitable, but on the server side or software on the single device do we have the proliferation of zillions of tiny difference apps or services?
The only arguments I can think is: a) sites accumulate audiences and it is access to that group of people as to why we need many sites, b) no site has everyone on board because while, in theory, we want a single device, we want slightly different social sites to reach everyone, and, c) we’re lazy and only want to click two buttons at most and a multi-function, do-everything site might require a little navigation, or at least a little customization to put your favorite features in the most obvious place. So we can’t handle complexity in web sites but we insist on only one device to do everything: little done well, mostly mediocre.
It’s strange and I don’t get it, but it also appears to be true, so there must be some underlying reason. But the history of PC software, I think, indicates that the diversity of slightly different sites and services is unlikely to prevail. It’s way to easy to copy features from Reddit into Facebook, or Twitter into WordPress, or Flickr into Pinterest (and then ultimately converged with other commentary/discussion oriented sites. dropbox and box.net are both waiting in the IPO wings but only offer the same features as SkyDrive or dozens of other “cloud” offering, or even WordPress.com. Until Twitter closes off the API (as they’re now aggressively doing, but that’s so they can shove ads down your throat), cross-posting is a fairly simple bit of code. Digg and del.ioic.us have already been incorporated elsewhere and are fading. In PC software the “suites”, with interchangeable objects, and integrated functionality won the day, so it’s hard not to believe that will happen again.
So soon the masters of prediction at trade rags will begin to talk about convergence and a whole wave of websites, many before they make the jump to IPO riches, will disappear, merged into some giant and horribly complicated single service.