Jack of all mobile trades

The race is on to create an all-singing, all-dancing portable entertainment system.

There’s a race on. Product designers in different camps the world over are currently busting a gut to come up with the ultimate all-in-one pocket infotainment capsule. A phone, a camera, a camcorder, a games console, an Internet browser, an MP3 player, a DVD player, a book, a digital storage device – and hell, while we’re at it let’s throw in a vibrator – all packed into a single, must-have designer shell.

Next month, Sony officially launches its much-vaunted Portable PlayStation in the UK. It can handle music and films, it stores data files and, of course, plays games. This follows Nokia’s N-Gage, a hybrid phone-cum-games player which was released a couple of years ago. Apple, meanwhile, is rumoured to be working with Motorola to extend the iPod’s functionality to allow you to make phone calls and take snaps.

Every manufacturer with a vested interest seems to be forging alliances or dipping their toes into unknown territory to perfect this Chimera-like product. But you can be sure of one thing. They’re all going to look more or less the same. They’ll be about the size and shape of a cigarette packet. They’ll be black, white or silver. They’ll have a screen at the top and controls at the bottom. They’ll be predictably slinky, shiny and prone to scratch. Why can’t we have one that’s shaped like a banana, or an ‘S’ or a Panama hat? Where are the orange ones? How about some tie-dye action? A brown corduroy finish, perhaps?

Now, I can well understand the allure of one of these multi-functional creatures. They put fewer bulges in your trousers. You won’t have to struggle synching up four different, incompatible devices, or remember which one has Auntie Flo’s address in it. Everything you need to idle away a long train journey is all there in one glorious silver looky-likey cigarette case.

But on the other hand, I’m suspicious of putting all my eggs in one basket. If your DVD player goes wrong, your e-mail’s up the spout too. If you lose it or it gets half-inched, your whole world suddenly collapses around you.

And anyway, who says we need to be entertained or working the whole time? One of the joys of a long train journey is staring vacantly out the window and being alone with your thoughts. It’s valuable down time, and it’s amazing how many ideas pop into your head when you take the pressure off yourself. Yet we’re somehow coerced into making every second count. Spare five minutes? Must brush up on my Norwegian.

With everything packed into the one gizmo, there has to be some compromise on quality too. No matter how impressive a decathlete is overall, they’re never going to beat a specialist at their particular event. So if you have need of a really good camera, you’re still going to need to buy one separately. Manufacturers will inevitably play to their strengths, and content will also become an issue. Who’s providing the best games, films and music will be as critical as how well these various all-singing, all-dancing devices do the business.

I recently saw a mobile phone designed by Seymour Powell. It was aimed mainly at older people and had large, chunky, funky buttons. The great thing about it was that it was just a phone. You could make and receive calls. That’s it. No complications, no add-ons, no distractions. Beautiful, considered simplicity. And best of all? It was orange.

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