Innovation is increasingly going to shift from the device to the interaction between multiple devices.

Apple is the biggest corporation around. Its fights with Samsung win front-page headlines. Have the device-makers taken over the world, or is this a battle amongst the residual dinosaurs?

I think it’s the latter.

For a few years, the action has all been in devices. Apple pushed things to a new level with the iPhone and then the iPad. And it’s taken the margins that, deservedly, come with innovation and a smoothly integrated user experience. But how much further can it innovate around the device?

I don’t think the device is going to remain at the centre of things for much longer. There is still more that can be done to improve devices, and there’s plenty of scope for new apps to run on those devices. But I think the real action is going to be in multi-device interactions.

Consider this: how many SIM cards do you have?

I’ve asked this question a few times at conferences and workshops, and the results generally average out at somewhere between two and three SIMs per person. There’s the phone, the tablet, maybe one in the laptop, and then a few outliers with as many as four or five SIMs in the various devices they’re carrying with them.

If a SIM card is really about our identity, then we’ve all become schizophrenic.

This is only the start. Whereas a few years ago it was the only the futurologists who talked about “internet of things”, now a bunch of technology companies have it on their product development roadmaps.

They’re talking seriously about scenarios such as:

  • Multi-device calls. You start a conversation while in the car, switch it to your mobile when you get out of the car, switch again to the TV when you get indoors, and so on. All seamlessly – no fiddling with apps and device controls; no interruption to the conversation.
  • Shared viewing. Multiple people in different locations watching the same movie or TV programme on their assorted tablets, TVs, computers, etc. All talking and sharing web pages as they do so. (You still have to bring your own crisps – it’ll be a while before you can share them across a wireless connection.)
  • Shared presence. A team working together from multiple locations, sharing files and screens, talking together, all as if they were in the same room. (This one is pretty well here – I’ve seen teams get pretty close to it in their daily development cycle.)
  • Medical and health data capture. Using an array of different sensors to capture data about heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, EEG and whatever other bodily statistics seem relevant. Then storing this data, visualising it, analysing it from the cloud, matching it against other people’s. Given that many of those sensors are built as independently connected devices in their own right, the number of devices interacting in this scenario is pretty astounding. And again, this is real – people are doing it now.
  • The interactive home. All those scenarios about controlling the central heating from the mobile phone? Again, they’re in the product pipelines now.

So why does my heart sink every time I try to synchronise my smartphone with my laptop? The pain of multiple different cables and connectors. The non-trivial chance that the sync will screw up and accidentally delete something important, or else fill my calendar with duplicated events.

The incompatibilities between various private clouds. These are all signs that device manufacturers are still seeing their devices as independent islands, centres of their own universes. OK, synchronisation is a tough problem.

But it’s still being treated as an afterthought, not as the starting point for a host of more sophisticated multi-device interactions. 

I think this is going to change. Innovation is increasingly going to shift from the device to the interaction between multiple devices.

This throws up a few interesting challenges for organisations as they interact with those device owners. For example:

  • How do we build a coherent experience when the device, form factor, browser, etc, may all change midway through any interaction?
  • If we can no longer tie a session to a single device / browser combination, then how do we maintain transactional integrity? How do we track customers when their “identity” changes multiple times in the course of an interaction?
  • How do we create experiences that make sense when no single device is at the centre of the user’s attention? When each individual device is peripheral, a small part of the wider set of multi-device interactions that a person is engaging in at any one time, then how do we integrate our particular segment with the wider set of activities that is under way?

Get it right, and the chance to have extended, meaningful conversations with customers is enormous. Get it wrong, and the interaction will be more akin to an unpleasant cacophony.