BlackBerry Holes

BlackBerry Holes

BlackBerry Holes

Science, technology, and life.
July 10 2009 7:44 AM

BlackBerry Holes

In outer space, when an object becomes so powerful that it sucks everything nearby into itself, we call it a black hole .

In cyberspace, when a device becomes so powerful that it sucks every electronic function into itself, we call it a BlackBerry.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Over the last couple of years, we've witnessed the consolidation of more and more functions into what used to be called a cell phone . First it was a phone, then a texting device, then a camera, then a game console, then a Web surfer, then a music player. Then it became a reader of physical hyperlinks . Then a reader of 3-D digital maps . Then a universal remote . Today, we call this thing a smartphone. Within three years, we'll be calling it something else. As it absorbs one function after another, it's becoming strong enough to consume the ultimate prey: the minds of its users .

Here's one more job the phone is devouring: GPS.

Jenna Wortham presents the latest trend data in the New York Times :

More than 40 percent of all smartphone owners use their mobile devices to get turn-by-turn directions, according to data from Compete, a Web analytics firm. For iPhone users, the figure is even higher, eclipsing 80 percent. ... Sales of traditional GPS units from companies like TomTom, Garmin and Magellan (a unit of MiTAC International) have fallen sharply recently. During the first quarter, TomTom said it shipped 29 percent fewer GPS units compared with the period in 2008. Garmin said unit sales fell 13 percent in the first quarter compared with the previous year. ... Meanwhile, shipments of smartphones in North America are expected to grow by 25 percent this year, with more than 80 percent of them equipped with GPS, according to ABI Research.

One reason for the exodus from dedicated GPS devices is cost: You can get a smartphone for $100 to $300 instead of spending $177 on a GPS unit. But the main reason is consolidation: Nobody wants to carry two devices—or three, or four, or five—when you can carry one that does all five things.

Some GPS makers, Wortham reports, are responding to this trend by selling GPS as software for smartphones instead of selling it as hardware. Others are adding phone service to their GPS devices. Good luck with that. But the bottom line is that no matter how this fight ends—smartphones with GPS, GPS with smartphones, or add-on GPS software for your smartphone—only one device will remain. Consolidation is inexorable.

What will the smartphone eat next? In no particular order, my money's on credit cards, car keys, flashlights, flash drives, books, television sets, and laptops. Some of these functions are already being absorbed. And one of these days, somebody will figure out how to add a stun gun. Just try not to hit the wrong button.