Death of the Gadget

The future of our devices: Swiss Army Knife Hardware vs Single Use Hardware

published on 10.26.23

There are two possible futures. One is that we each have a single device capable of doing nearly any task we'd want completed. Email, internet browsing, listening to music, streaming movies and TV shows, a weather app, writing, a notepad, gaming, coding, phone calls, a camera, a tape recorder, reading, a wallet, GPS, you name it. This is basically an iPhone and I'd say it is the most likely future. In this future, the interface with the device will get even more seamless than that of an iPhone (voice in the short term, brain interfaces in the long term) to the point of making constant interaction with our devices the norm. Everyone will have their ear pieces in at all times. Seeing people apparently in conversation with themselves will be normal.

The other possibility is a return to single use hardware. In this future, each task or function that the "All in One" device discussed above could accomplish, would instead be achieved by a collection of various devices. One device for music, one device for GPS, one device for taking photos, one device for writing, one for reading, one for coding. Why would anyone want this future? Friction and focus. With single use hardware, you can't have every option for distraction with you at all times. When waiting in line for coffee, if you only brought your writing device, you can't scroll Twitter. When reading on your reading device, you can't get a text message. Is this future unrealistic? Perhaps it is. But I consider how much I love my Kindle. How I only use my Apple Watch for keeping time and recording my runs. How drastically I've simplified my iPhone home screen to only have a few functions available. I think of things like the Light Phone, Remarkable, my own company Printernet, Freewrite, "Loftie", "Tidbyt", the success of Teenage Engineering with products like the "OB-4 magic radio" and the "TP-7 field recorder", Ash, the Freedom App, Spotify's experimental "Car Thing", the resurgence of Vinyl and film photography, the backlash to push notifications and the introduction of iOS features like "Focus Mode" and "Do Not Disturb". My younger brother was just gifted a walkman. Derek Sivers advocated for setting up your own email server on his most recent appearence on the Tim Ferriss show. There are signs that a single use hardware future is out there. Is it likely? No. But there is something charming about it. Remember how fun it was when Flip Cameras, iPod nanos, Go Pros, and Garmins roamed the Earth?

Professional musicians wouldn't replace their setups with an iPhone. Professional filmmakers and photographers wouldn't either. Is it really that strange to imagine a future where the average consumer refuses to have 24/7 access to every tool they could possibly want in their pocket or clipped on their lapel? Does convenience and cost always truimph over quality, ownership, and well-being?

If you had to launch a successful hardware product on Kickstarter, what would you try? I've seen pens, cooking equipment, habit builders, watches, and other niche tools do well there. Where is there opportunity for a single use hardware product today?

Here is a list of some of my kooky hardware ideas:

Collected reading on this topic