Most consumer electronic devices today are multi-purpose and have been specifically designed for this. They can be used to listen to music, watch downloaded content, surf the internet and sometimes even make phone calls. The days of single purpose devices have long gone and if a manufacturer brought out a mobile phone which could just make calls, it would not be a huge success.
Of course multi-purpose devices cannot do everything and there have to be limits on the built-in capabilities. In some cases the limits are due to size (you wouldn’t add a printer to a tablet) but in most cases the limits are due to cost. Cost in this instance can be the actual cost to purchase the device, the cost to develop in terms of time and also the cost to add a new variation of the product. Multi-purpose products are today designed to be sold worldwide. Manufacturers try to limit the number of versions of a product they have to make and sell, to keep the costs low and also to better handle inventory. If they only have one version, they only have to keep stock of this single device. If there are 2 versions, then they have to keep stock of the 2 versions and also predict which will be the better seller etc. As can be seen, once the number of versions increases, the logistical challenges increase. Finally, if all the devices use the same components, it is easier to drive cost out of the manufacturing.
So multi-purpose devices have their limits, but users do not. The solution is to introduce an after-market, where accessories are sold to add features etc. This might be as simple as adding a protective case, or a camera or indeed an improved camera. Also this can be used to add country specific features that the device manufacturers would not want to add, at least not until the market opportunity was shown.
One example of an after-market feature is Tablet TV, where the ability to watch Live broadcast TV does not exist within today's tablets. So Tablet TV can offer an accessory device which can add the ability to watch Live TV, as well as many other cool things (such as Video on Demand over the broadcast spectrum).
Accessories can be plug-in, where they connect directly to the portable device, or they could be connected via WiFi. Plug-in accessories make sense where you need that physical closeness to the device, such as a camera, but do not suit every application. For example, when adding TV reception capability, one of the key concerns is reception of the TV signal. If a plug-in accessory is used, then the signal reception is dependent on where the device is at that moment. Move the device (and tablets are designed to be moved!) and the signal reception will change. It could change for the better or then again maybe not. If however you have a device connected via WiFI, it could be placed somewhere and as long as you are in range of the WiFi, you are free to move your tablet about as you want.
Another reason for avoiding plug-in accessories in most cases is to allow the accessory to be used with as wide a range of devices as possible. Recently Apple changed their connector on their range of devices (iPad/iPhone etc), android devices tend to use mini-USB connectors and Surface from Microsoft offers a full size USB. So which connector would you use? Also if you have something plugged into one of these connectors, it’s not securely held in. There are no clips etc with the USB versions and only small hooks with the Apple connectors. Any connector can only support a limited amount of weight and during motion there is a significant risk that the connector becomes detached. The weight limitation will also limit not only the size of an accessory (and the resultant antenna for a TV style product) but also the size of the battery the accessory can have, limiting its operational life.
So plug-in accessories work in some cases. For others it makes sense to have a WiFi connection, a suitable antenna, large enough battery pack and also the ability to have the accessory connected to the mains supply when it is being used and is static.
Dr Glenn Craib
Vice President Products & Services