Thursday, March 7, 2013

Component vs. Convergence

Funny thing is, I think I owned every
one of those items at one point or another.
Over the years, I've had an ongoing debate. Which is better, having components that you can control the quality of and what you use or don't use, or all in one convergence, where everything is located in one device?

For years, I've been torn on this. I'm strongly a component man. I'd rather have the best gear to do the task I want to do for the effort, money and dedication I'm willing to give.

When I was a musician building my little MIDI studio, that meant I spent the coin and dedicated the space to having a synthesize, drum machine, and computer that ran a dedicated software application to do MIDI sequencing. The other alternative was to buy an all in one device that had everything in one. My logic always was that, if I decided I wanted to use a different sequencer, I could update just that piece. With an all in one device, if you didn't like an option, you were stuck with what you had, unless you were willing to sell off the whole unit and replace it with another, more powerful all in one device.

What's been interesting to see with devices like smart phones, tablets and ultralight portable computers, we're seeing a lot of these old technologies doing all of their actions in software. When I was looking at Audacity some years ago, I was amused and amazed at the fact that an entire bank of audio effects (a variety of rack mount effects processors with patch panels and MIDI connections for control) were represented as drop down selections and dialog boxes). I sniffed a little dismissively at first and said "well, that's cute and all, but it doesn't give me near the level of control or quality as my standalone tools". Back then, that was true. Now? Not so much. More to the point, the Digital Audio Workstation that I created twenty years ago, and spent a huge amount of money on for its time, is now completely replicated, and in many ways vastly advanced, by Garage Band, an app that's a freebie with OS X! Garage Band can now do things that were considered strictly the domain of high end tools like ProTools two decades ago. 

I'm finding myself still chuckling about some convergence habits. I think people holding their iPads to use them as cameras or video recorders is still a bit odd, but hey, it's working for a lot of people, and its working well. The fact is, the dedicated pieces of hardware will still be available for those who really want the fine level of control, but I am finally starting to think that, perhaps in the next decade or so, that many of the tools most of us have relied on in the past will probably continue on this convergence path. 

Will we reach the point where everything is done inside of some shiny tablet device that we talk to, intimate with, and get to do what we want? For many people, I think the answer will be yes, and it will be to a quality that's good enough that they'll be happy with it. Will I ever get excited about the quality of a picture taken with an iPhone compared to one taken with a top end DSLR? Probably not, but the truth is, for 99.9% of the photographic interactions most people have (candid snapshots of friends that they will share with others and receive comments on), good enough really is. Will I want to completely abandon all of my high end (well, it was at one time) music gear to interact with just a tablet? I don't see myself ever wanting to give up the tactile experience of my guitars or bass, or the physical dynamics of banging out a drum beat on the motley collection of drum pads I have hooked into my drum synthesizer, but I will admit that the idea of putting a podcast together with nothing but a tablet and prepared material is really appealing. 

Convergence is happening, and at a hugely advanced rate. More of our physical world is becoming zeros and ones. "May we live in interesting times" is proving to be true, and what makes me even more excited... is someone has to test these converging interactions. Testers, for the sake of our craft and the future of what we do, we do indeed live in interesting times :).
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