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Welcome to the divergence

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Sometimes the pendulum swings back

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I've been thinking a lot about convergence recently — the notion that more and more pieces of our lives will somehow be turned into software or consumed by a smartphone in some way. Convergence has been the organizing principle of the tech industry for decades: Microsoft spent the '90s and early 2000s trying to converge everything into the PC, and then Apple's "digital hub" strategy enhanced a new ecosystem of digital devices like the iPod with desktop software like iTunes and iPhoto.

digital hub

That entire class of devices was wiped out by the smartphone, of course — there isn't anything left on the original Steve Jobs digital hub slide that hasn't been replaced by a phone. MP3 player? Point and shoot camera? DVD player? PalmPilot? All replaced by an app. Hell, we're now at the point where we're trying to replace massive entrenched industries with apps: Uber is just software to replace the taxi system, if you zoom out a little. The smartphone took convergence from the organizing principle of industry to the driving force of revolution.

But there are little signs that the smartphone convergence might be over, and the pendulum might be swinging back a little. At CES this year Kodak introduced a new film Super 8 camera that became the talk of the show; the other big introduction was a revived Technics SL-1200 turntable. Sony also introduced a turntable — as in, something designed to play phonograph records in 2016. Sony Electronics COO Mike Fasulo told me with a straight face that "vinyl is different, it's happening, it's new... it's a huge trend."

And it is a huge trend — vinyl sales are at a 26-year high in the US, and they represent more revenue to the music industry than streaming right now. Sony CEO Kaz Hirai told me that Sony Music has had to go out and find old record-pressing equipment to refurbish in order to meet production demand.

And there are other little signs too: mirrorless camera sales continue to increase, even as the cameras in our smartphones get better and better. The inexorable march of smarthome gadgets carries on, regardless of whether smart refrigerators are actually good ideas. The drone industry feels poised to explode after the FCC sets guidelines in place and provides the market with some certainty.

Let's call this the divergence: when the devices outside the phone become more interesting than the phone itself

Let's call this the divergence: when experiences and devices that operate independently of a smartphone become more interesting than the phones themselves. And when these devices do connect to a smartphone, it's only a sidebar.

I have a number of theories about the divergence, but the one I keep coming back to is the notion that smartphones (and computers, in a sort of general sense) have gone from being exciting signifiers of the future to well-understood parts of daily life that we simply take for granted. The magic of watching things like music and photos converge into a smartphone screen was partially based on novelty — a new, better way of creating and consuming media. Once the new becomes the traditional, it's only natural for people to look for something else once again.

Add in the fact that the enormous millennial generation is now part of the workforce and has discretionary income to spend, and the market for divergent products and services begins to take shape: if smartphone convergence was all about virtualizing everything into smartphone apps, divergence is all about physical experiences that command attention away from the phone.

"It's an add-on, not a replacement," says Racked style editor Nicola Fumo. "You have a phone with Spotify for the subway but at home you create an ‘experience' with vinyl records. You have a phone camera for in-the-moment stuff, and a film camera for thoughtful photos (which will probably wind up on Instagram or Tumblr). The notes app on your phone for quick stuff, and a Moleskine for journaling."

Convergence is about convenience, but divergence is about experience and meaning

This is a complete flip from the 1980s tech culture I grew up in, where even the faintest whiff of technology meant something was improved; the word DIGITAL was stamped on boomboxes and answering machines like a cult talisman. Convergence was about prioritizing convenience above all, a good-enough camera and music player and movie theater permanently in your pocket. Divergence is about prioritizing quality of experience to create meaning.

"I think it's rooted in millennials preferring experiences over stuff," says Fumo. "Traveling to Thailand is cooler than having a fancy purse." But the divergence means that you can buy tangible stuff that creates experiences. That film camera isn't just a fussy way to take photos, it's a way of saying that this moment is valuable. Is that true? It is if you want it to be!

The divergence means old product categories suddenly seem vibrant again: the new Nikon D500 mixes pro-level DSLR handling with a consumer sensor and always-on smartphone connection to offer perhaps the best Instagram camera ever made. All those record players are going to need speakers and amps — the home stereo is about to get interesting again. And it's only a small hop from buying vinyl to buying the new 4K Blu-rays; you probably can't really hear the supposedly higher quality of a vinyl record but you can definitely see streaming video compression.

How do you convince people that new software features are as meaningful as the physicality they're seeking?

After eight years of total faith in the smartphone, what happens when consumers start to mark their most important moments by using other devices? More importantly, what happens when the smartphones are good enough, and consumers decide to spend the money they would have spent on a new phone on another product that provides more of the experiences they value? How do you convince people that new software features are as meaningful as the physicality they're seeking?

I don't think convergence is over, not by a long shot — the smartphone can evolve in so many different ways and absorb so many different things yet. But divergence suggests that we're all looking for something a little more than a screen in our pocket, and that means that the smartphone has gone from revolutionary new invention to boring necessity. Bring on the new.


CES 2016: Technics SL-1200 is back in hifi audio

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