A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
“An iPod. A phone. An internet communicator.”
These were the words Steve Jobs used to describe the first iPhone immediately before introducing it during a landmark keynote in January of 2007.
Of course, it was a single device, and it combined all those things—and more—into a slab of glass, metal, plastic, and silicon.
Convergence can sometimes be amazing in practice—the new Raspberry Pi 400, which shoves a whole computer in a tiny keyboard, has been getting some good notices in recent days.
But not every attempt at convergence makes much sense. Sometimes, it’s just hilariously misguided.
Let’s discuss why we combine things—even when they have no business being combined, such as the computer mouse with a built-in telephone.
That product, I promise you, exists.
Why convergence often means things get combined when they shouldn’t
In many ways, the iPhone represents the ideal pushed by a generation of techno-futurists, many of whom had an idea of what the end result might look like, if not the actual result.
The guy who came up with this idea, way back in 1978, has cast a long shadow over the technology space in general. His name was Nicholas Negroponte, and the MIT professor came up with a concept that was audacious for 1978 but seems absolutely pedestrian now. Effectively, it’s pedestrian because of how right the concept was.
Negroponte, with the use of a group of circles, posited that the major information industries of the time—film and television, printing and publishing, and computers—would eventually start to overlap more completely, to the point that their missions and goals were basically the same.
I don’t know if you’ve used Netflix recently or read The New York Times on your computer, but this 41-year-old theory proved more insanely correct than anyone might have imagined during the days of Three’s Company and “Disco Duck.” Negroponte had given voice to a trend that has basically dominated modern technology over the past four decades. And it has shaped not only Negroponte’s life, but also the university in which he works.
In 1985, a little more than five years after he started giving voice to this prediction, he helped found the MIT Media Lab, which effectively is this general concept of convergence in academic form, essentially built around the idea that divergent disciplines will essentially merge together.
“The idea was marketed to the broadcasting, publishing, and computer industries as the convergence of the sensory richness of video, the information depth of publishing, and the intrinsic interactivity of computers,” Negroponte wrote in his ’90s book Being Digital of the Media Lab’s creation. “Sounds so logical today, but at the time the idea was considered silly.”
Helping to make the sale was The Media Lab, Stewart Brand’s 1988 book that helped to explain the concepts to a broader audience.
“Negroponte’s vision: all communication technologies are suffering a joint metamorphosis, which can only be understood properly if treated as a single subject, and only advanced properly if treated as a single craft,” Brand wrote. “The way to figure out what needs to be done is through exploring the human sensory and cognitive system and the ways that humans most naturally interact. Join this and you grasp the future.”
Negroponte has made his voice known on these issues in other ways as well. Wired magazine, which he was an early investor in, gained much of its philosophical vision from Negroponte’s early columns, while his heavily hyped One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort is seen as something of an ambitious bust, though it remains active to this day.
(And—it must be noted, because it’s important—Negroponte faced significant controversy a year ago for his comments about the MIT Media Lab accepting money from Jeffrey Epstein, a controversy which led to the departure of the Media Lab’s director at the time, Joi Ito.)
No matter what to make of Negroponte’s legacy at this time, he is ultimately tied to this idea that has defined how we look at technology—that things that were once separate will inevitably combine and take new forms, with the goal of eventually converging into a single object.
The iPhone may be the best-known example of this, but so many examples of things that tried to merge different technological tools together, to mixed success and even failure. For every Roku, there were dozens of false starts in bringing streaming video into the living room in an efficient way. Video-editing tools once required lots of hardware and software, and a giant suite like Video Toaster was once seen as revolutionary; now it can be done, quickly, on a smartphone.
I’d like to call this kind of innovation, the type that happens before a Roku or iPhone comes along to make things easy, “messy convergence.” It’s what happens when something is clearly designed to help build upon a potentially innovative idea, but it does so awkwardly, in a way where the seams are very much showing. It’s not a slick product on a stage. It’s a jumble of wires on a workbench that barely works but shows a bigger idea is possible.
In many ways, the original OLPC, forever tied to the guy who helped to popularize convergence, is a perfect example of the messy part of convergence in action. It was a lovely device in many ways ahead of its time, but it promised the world at a tiny price point.
Still, there were things it did that would become much more common a few years later—anyone with a 2-in-1 laptop likely has OLPC to thank for creating a mainstream example of the form factor. With wireless access, a screen that worked well even in sunlight, and a design that was both light and rugged, it stretched far beyond what most computers could do at its price point because it started by trying to solve a different problem than, say, Steve Jobs was.
And there were things that it just couldn’t do. It never got its much-ballyhooed crank, however, nor the ad-hoc networking capabilities that sounded good but were ineffective in real-world use cases.
So why all this thinking about convergence? Well, I found an incredibly weird device on the internet recently, and it made me think about how much we often “screw up” convergence before we get it right.
Let me introduce you to the Tele-Mouse, a friggin’ mouse with a built-in telephone.
A common term used on auction sites to describe items sold as “new old stock.” This term often is in reference to stock that never sold to consumers, either because of commercial failure, supply chain problems, or because an item was overproduced. (Two classic examples of tech items that frequently appear in NOS form on auction sites such as eBay include the TI 99/4a computer, which was discontinued somewhat suddenly after Texas Instruments lost a price war with Commodore; and the Aladdin Deck Enhancer, the NES add-on, affiliated with Codemasters, that was sold on home-shopping networks.) The Tele-Mouse, which we’re talking about here, is but one such example of a NOS item floating around eBay and similar sites.
Why there was a time where a mouse-telephone combo seemed like it made sense … to somebody
I’ve seen a lot of weird things over the years, but never has it struck me that there might be a market for a computer mouse with a built-in telephone.
It’s not something obvious, right? After all, the image of someone putting a computer mouse up to their face seems undeniably silly. Even using one as a speakerphone feels like a bit of a stretch.
But nonetheless, there was a short period in technology history where it kind of, sort of, maybe made a little bit of sense. That period was between the years 1998 and 2000, when many computer users were getting online on a regular basis for the first time, often on phone lines in which actual telephone calls were competing with modems that were saturating the line at all hours of the day.
If you didn’t want to get up from your desk just to take a call, why not take it from the speakerphone inside of your cursor machine? That was the apparent line of thinking behind a device called the Tele-Mouse, which came out around 1998 or so.
This, my friends, is an excellent example of messy convergence. The person who first came up with this idea, whomever it is, made the realization that we would be taking calls from the same general area where we’d be using our desktop computer … but they solved the problem in the most wrongheaded way possible. The solution was not to add a speakerphone to the mouse; the solution was to put voice calling, and later videoconferencing, capabilities into the computer itself.
The issue is that there was a clear limitation to doing a conference call over the internet in 1998, because home modems spat out a minuscule amount of bandwidth, barely enough for a single voice, let alone two.
So, having done some research on this device, here’s what I can tell you—it was part of a mini-trend. This specific device was developed by a Canadian company named Curtis International, which still exists today and often sells products labeled with RCA and Sylvania brand names, among others. (Another company named Curtis that existed during the same period and also specialized in computer accessories was not involved.)
This particular device was sold at cut-rate retailers like Value City, and ultimately seems to have been sold to people who don’t usually buy gadgets. I mean, just look at the box. Does it look like something a serious gadget nerd would buy?
In many ways, the Tele-Mouse isn’t even in the same league as the OLPC on the innovation front. But Curtis International wasn’t even the only one to think of this idea. Some of the largest technology companies in the world have patent filings implying that they at least thought about releasing a device like this.
In 1998, Micron Technology—today one of the largest manufacturers of computer memory, but back then a PC manufacturer—filed for a patent for a computer mouse with a built in telephone handset; unlike what Curtis developed, the Micron handset literally unfolded, revealing a full-fledged telephone.
Fittingly, Sony has the best example of this type of device. Image: Sony Vaio press photo
A more interesting example of this comes from Sony, which released a device called the Vaio Mouse Talk, which removes the necessity of a phone line connection, and instead allows calls to happen over Skype. (It also removes a lot of cables, because it works over USB, allowing functions to be combined.) That seems to have been released a mini-generation later, and perhaps a step closer to actually being useful for regular people.
But ultimately, we don’t take phone calls using our mouse. We use video, or our headphones, because we’re not obsessed with the idea of a phone having to work like a phone, but we want a way to use our voice to communicate.
One might look at the Tele-Mouse and think that it represents the ideal of the “As Seen on TV” generation—in which convergence happens in ways so minuscule that the innovations come off less as useful and more as an excuse for novelty.
And certainly, at first glance, that’s what I thought. But then I realized that real companies with real brand names also went down this road and tried this exact same stupid idea of combining a device for calling your boss with a device adept at playing Minesweeper. The difference is that most of them played with this idea and never let it leave the R&D department.
In much the same way as an iPhone, a telephone mouse combines user input functionality with communication functionality, even if it did so in the most functionally useless way possible.
It was a bad idea, but perhaps it was an essential one, in a way—because it showed us what we shouldn’t do when it comes to innovation.
“If all you want to do is send hard-copy faxes, a fax modem system is overkill. And for many electronic files, a standard data modem may be sufficient.”
— Byte writer Don Crabb, describing the value (or lack thereof) of the fax modem, which can accept faxes in digital form and, in combination with other computer components such as a scanner and printer, handle the hard-copy form as well. This approach, which appeared on Macintosh computers around 1988 and 1989, was even natively supported by Apple, which sold a $699 AppleFax device. Despite his skepticism of the concept at first, he ultimately came around after reviewing the devices—though he found AppleFax, the most expensive of the three he reviewed, to be the least capable. “I am convinced that these products have a legitimate niche alongside standalone fax machines,” he wrote. The fax modem is one of many great examples of how convergence can often look messy and complicated in retrospect.
Five examples of “messy convergence” in action
- Google Glass. This is such an obvious one! Clearly this device attempted to bring the basic concepts of wearable computing and augmented reality to the potential masses, but the problem was that nobody thought of a use case for the thing, and even the die-hards eventually took the devices off. I actually wore one of these around for a week or two a while ago, and let me tell you: It sure felt like a glorified camera to me—and at some point it makes more sense for this functionality to be inside of a smartphone.
- CueCat. The idea that people would want to scan information into their computers from their printed reading materials was absolutely astute, but the problem with CueCat, a late-’90s device that was literally given away to millions of people, was that the computers we had to use with the barcode scanners were simply too big and cumbersome to actually make this a useful thing. It would take smartphones and QR codes to make this general idea functional.
- Mobile ESPN. People who are really into sports want up-to-the-minute scores and news updates, yes, but do they want it enough to pay more than $60 a month for a dedicated phone plan? That was the bet ESPN made in 2005, when it created its own mobile service, complete with custom feature phones. It failed, but as Motherboard reported in 2015, it may have secretly set ESPN up for digital success, as many of its ideas were basically perfect for the smartphone age. (Side note: The promotional site for Mobile EPSN is still online.)
- Palm Foleo. A few years after the iPhone came out, Steve Jobs made it up on the Apple stage once again to tell phones that there was a need for a third device between desktop computers and smartphones … a device that turned out to be the iPad. This must have felt like salt in the wound of Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm, as his company’s Palm Foleo, a 10-inch subnotebook, based on Linux, for checking email or surfing the web without having to carry around a larger device, was heavily criticized for not being more full-featured. (Even Jakob Nielsen took a shot at it!) It was cancelled before it first came out, but almost immediately after that happened, netbooks—the very line of device the product was trying to introduce—became popular.
- Samsung Galaxy Fold (the first one): The company has since come out with a better version of this device, but the original, easy-to-break version is an excellent example of a device that feels like it’s on the cusp of something amazing—combining a large screen into something pocketable, helping potentially pave the way for the future where one fewer daily device is necessary. In a few years, it will likely stop looking like messy convergence and more like actual convergence.
The above products, some of which were released, others which likely will never see the light of day, highlight how technologies that seem seamless today sometimes emerge into the world with seams all over the place, looking awkward as all-get-out.
Some are failed experiments in which those experimenting admit that they didn’t get it right; others are ideas that just need a little bit more time in the oven.
Eventually, someone, or a group of people will come along with just the right level of polish to hide the seams away from view. So, did I write this piece just to trash on a computer mouse that has a built-in phone in it? Perhaps that’s where I started. But then I realized that it was perhaps a stepping stone. Maybe a misguided stepping stone that might cause you to twist an ankle and fall flat on your face, allowing the information superhighway to trample you before you can get back up again.
But that’s the nature of convergence; keep experimenting, and eventually the circles will overlap.