The real convergent desktop: Data over interface

Convergence is a buzzword that companies like Canonical have been working towards for a while. Jack Wallen opines that the real convergence should happen on a data level, not a UI level.

Ever since Canonical proposed the idea, the convergent desktop has been that golden ring many companies have attempted to reach. I've spoken at length on this topic, but now I'd like to focus the lens a bit more tightly on the mobile aspect of convergence and propose that an "all or nothing" solution might not be the only route to success.

If you're unfamiliar with the term "convergent", it refers to the seamless transition between mobile and desktop technology—where the line between desktop and mobile is blurred. Running an app on a mobile device would be the same as if it were on a desktop (and vice versa) and data would be in a constant state of sync.

Thing is, we already (mostly) have that. Consider, if you will, Google services:

  • Gmail
  • Google Drive
  • Google Calendar

Using any of the above on either the desktop or any device which offers the apps is already a fairly seamless transition. The main difference (at least from my perspective) is that on my smartphone I use an app, whereas on my Linux desktop, I use a browser. The variance ends there. Even so, we see convergence (mostly) in action.

The race for a completely convergence desktop, to me, seems to be a futile one. Let me explain. The primary assumption for convergence is the touch interface. To get a fully realized convergent experience, both mobile and desktop (or laptop) device must make use of a touch interface. On the mobile front, that is a non-issue. On the laptop front, that is almost a non-issue. On the desktop front, that's a different story. The vast majority of desktop users either don't have touch interface or don't want touch interfaces. This is simply a matter of logistics. Using a touch interface on a desktop completely changes the way we work—down to our physical work spaces.

With that in mind, from my perspective, the most logical form of the convergent desktop would be one in which:

  • Data is automatically synced between desktop and mobile
  • Data can be searched, across platforms
  • Data can easily be pushed from one platform to the other

We could take that further (and add a bit of serious innovation into the mix) by creating the technology that would emulate the mobile device on a desktop when the smartphone is docked. Imagine being able to use your mobile device from your desktop. No more switching back and forth between the two devices. You dock your smartphone and your desktop serves as both PC and phone. Such ideas take convergence to the outer limits of probability—but not beyond the realm of the possible.

Convergence is a great idea. But from my perspective, it seems those pushing for this new metaphor are pushing on the wrong sides. Instead of trying to make the environments one and the same, why not just focus on making sure the transition and manipulation of data between the two is as seamless as possible. I don't want to see Google push Chrome OS into an Android clone. I don't want to see Ubuntu on my desktop turn into what I'd see on a Ubuntu-based phone. Why? Those mobile interfaces were perfectly designed for devices with small screens. The whole of the interface works well with little real estate. Transfer that idea onto a non-touch, 30" HD monitor and you have the recipe for frustration. Years have been put into refining the Ubuntu Unity interface into an efficient means of interacting with software on a standard-sized screen. The Windows 8 interface—that's another story altogether, let's not open that Pandora's box.

Any developer working with mobile/desktop/laptop convergence should understand the single most important piece of this puzzle is data, not GUI. Bring us sync-able, push-able, cross-device searchable data across all of our platforms and you've already made a giant leap forward. Google is very close to bringing these items perfectly to the table. There are a couple of pieces to this puzzle Google has yet to integrate:

  • Search data across mobile and desktop device (outside of Google Drive)
  • Push files between mobile and desktop device (outside of Google Drive)

You may look at those two items and think, "Wait, I can set up an app like Astro File Manager with the SMB module and move files back and forth from a shared drive on my desktop." With that response, you would be correct. But does the average use have the knowledge to A) know this and B) set this up? The boundaries to this puzzle piece may be too great (especially when counting on the end user to make the connection between device and desktop), but both major players in the mobile landscape could pull this off—even if it meant purchasing a company or two and rolling their features into the platform (hello Pushbullet).

I personally don't believe the pinnacle for convergence will be "One interface to rule them all". Developers and designers should be thinking more along the lines of "One data to rule them all." Adopt that principle, make it happen, and you will rule the convergent landscape.

What is convergence to you? Is it something we already have, is it something we really need, or is it something that will come and go like so many memes? And what is your ideal form of convergence?

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website

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