CTIA - Microsoft's Ballmer makes a pitch for unifying devices

Melding voice, email and other functions in one gadget could be thorny, critics say

Everybody's seen That Guy on an airplane: He's got an MP3 player for music, a BlackBerry for e-mail, and a slick multimedia laptop for creating spreadsheets or watching movies. And he might even also carry a mobile phone, unless the BlackBerry doubles as one.

How long will it be before all these mobile devices converge into a single uber-gadget?

It's a question that has been on the minds of device makers for years, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer raised it again Tuesday.

"It's funny to see people pull out multiple devices, one for e-mail and another for phone calls," Ballmer told a keynote audience at CTIA: Wireless IT and Entertainment 2007 here. "That strikes me as incredibly odd."

Ballmer called on his audience of vendors and some IT managers to consider ways of bringing various devices together to handle different jobs and different types of customers -- both business and consumer.

"We have to think about the phone as the universal remote control for your business life and personal life," he said. "People want phones to be general-purpose devices to support me in my life and work."

It wasn't clear exactly how fast or how far Ballmer would push his point. Industry analysts in the audience wondered how desirable it might be for devices to converge -- leaving IT potentially in the position of supporting personal lifestyle applications on a device supplied to a worker at company expense.

Most problems could be minor, said analysts, but not all of them. A worker might occasionally surf on a company device to find porn or to gamble, posing liability and other worries to the company. By contrast, an application-rich device designed to help a salesman check an inventory of goods in a database might be too expensive to support the needs of a teenager mostly interesting in playing ring tones or downloading songs to a phone.

Converging all (or nearly all) functions for all (or nearly all) users into one device "is not realistic," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "Everybody knows a good video device is not necessarily good at e-mail, and so on."

And some leaders in the wireless industry realize that not every company will support personal uses on a company-issued device. In particular, defense contractors and financial services firms will probably always lock down devices to make sure they are not running programs that could carry viruses or otherwise compromise security, said members of a press-only luncheon panel addressing Microsoft's announcement of a new mobile device management manager.

Scott Horn, general manager of Microsoft's mobile communications business unit, said that "many users" want a converged device, but conceded there will always be some companies that don't want to support a device with all kinds of uses. He even said it is conceivable that some future device could have a partition between personal and work-related applications.

One panel member at the luncheon panel, Michael Woodward, vice president of business mobility marketing at AT&T, said that AT&T would work with companies that might be considering dividing up the costs for a single device. He explained that some companies could tell workers that the first US$60 of a monthly bill would be paid by the company, and the rest of the costs would be the responsibility of the user. AT&T is currently the sole US carrier offering Apple's iPhone, which has been marketed primarily as a consumer device.

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