Buy smarter accessories: no uni-taskers

We live in an age of multiple devices and multi-platforms. We should expect our keyboards, mice, headsets, and printers to work with all of them.

Hardware accessories don't tend to be as smart as software. Keyboards and mice often are plugged into a single system, never to be moved. Software tends to be "smarter": it works smoothly across multiple devices. For example, Google Apps users access data and apps on any device. Chrome, Gmail, Google Drive, Hangouts, and Google+ all work natively on the web and on the two major mobile platforms (Android and iOS).

And today, people use multiple devices - even if not all of them are company-provided. About one out of four U.S. consumers owns a laptop, smartphone, and tablet, according Deloitte's "State of the Media Democracy Survey" conducted in November 2012. These multi-device users switch between these devices throughout the day, moving from the laptop to smartphone to tablet.


But hardware accessories too often work with one device: Alton Brown might call these single-device accessories uni-taskers. Software and services that work on many platforms make life easier. There's no reason hardware accessories can't work with multiple devices: why buy two mice for two devices, when you only have one employee?

Here are four accessory purchases you should re-think for multi-device users.


Many users have at least two keyboards: one for a desktop, and another for use with a tablet. I suggest you buy keyboards that work with multiple devices. A single Bluetooth keyboard that supports pairing with more than one device at a time makes sense. For example, I use a Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K760 paired with my Chromebox, iPad, and Android phone. I press a key to switch the keyboard to work with any of these devices; I don't have to re-pair the device every time.

The only downside to this setup is that operating-system specific keys are not present or may not work. For example, if there's no "Windows" key on the device. In most cases, there are alternative key combinations that work well. (There are also similar keyboards that enable fast device switching with Windows keys; some of those lack the "Apple"/command key.)


As with keyboards, why purchase more than one mouse? Until recently, Bluetooth mice that remembered multiple pairing were quite rare. I use an Elecom 9nove mouse paired with my Chromebook and my Android phone. (Yes, Bluetooth mice work well with Android devices. The Elecom 9nove is a bit unusual: I ordered mine from Japan.) The Elecom mouse can remember pairings for nine different Bluetooth systems.

For more conventional users, a mouse might be paired with a desktop and standard Windows laptop. For example, Logitech's Ultrathin Touch Mouse offers Bluetooth switching between two devices. I expect we'll see more mice that support multiple Bluetooth devices in the coming year.


Headsets are a bit more interesting, as there are both wireless and wired options available that work well with multiple devices. Wireless headsets that support Bluetooth multipoint, or pairing with two different devices, are common. Typically, these are designed to support two smartphones. Some support desktop and phone audio. For example, Jawbone's Icon HD plus The Nerd is designed to be paired with a Mac/Windows system and a phone: listen to computer audio, then switch to a call on your smartphone, then back to computer audio.

Many wired headset manufacturers offer headsets with adapters to enable devices to work with laptops and desktops, in addition to phones and tablets. In my case, I don't need an adapter, since the Chromebox's audio port is compatible with a wired smartphone headset. I use a single, wired headset (an Etymotic) with a Chromebox, Chromebook, iPad, and Android phone. Switching between devices in this case means unplugging and re-plugging. (Personally, I prefer a wired headset over Bluetooth, because it means one fewer item I need to charge.)


While one mouse or headset per person is prudent, one printer per person is waste. Unless security or business reasons absolutely require it, a printer should be a shared resources, not a single-user resource. Many organizations still have too many printers.

Printers increasingly support printing from all four major operating system platforms: Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. Windows and Mac support will typically be specified on the box. Look for support of Airplay to ensure compatibility with iOS (iPhone and iPad) devices, and printers that support Google's Cloud Print to ensure compatibility with printing from Chrome OS and Android devices. Ideally, a printer should support both wired and wireless network connections.

No uni-taskers

Alton Brown, the Food Network star, encourages people to avoid "unitaskers" (single purpose devices) in the kitchen. In the age of cloud software and multiple devices, I think it's time we expect more from our hardware accessories. No more single-device keyboards or mice might be a good start. What do you think?