Compatibility and competition

Some people like to wear Nike sweats with their Nike caps and running shoes. It's a symmetry thing. They can suit up in a hurry, and look coordinated.

So let's say, dude, you're getting a Dell! You'll need a printer. Dell, a savvy custom-builder of computers, has plans to sell its own branded printer next summer. So you could wait and make the order with one call, or at the website.

But maybe you're not so sure. You've been happy with your old warhorse Hewlett Packard printer – and isn't HP a printer "specialist?" Wait a minute. HP makes a pretty well-regarded desktop PC, too. And it makes digital cameras.

Hold it. Canon and Nikon make digital cameras – and hold deep credentials in image capturing.

And we haven't even begun to consider all the increasingly powerful, multifunctional hand-helds.

It's not easy being a consumer of personal technology today. Many digital devices have capabilities that overlap. Many are also designed to interface with one another.

Toward that end, the industry has pushed hard for compatibility. Set aside the yawning gap between Apple and the rest of the computing world – though bridges are being built even there – and it ought to be a plug-and-play world.

Will it remain so? Manufacturers appear to be balancing their desires to turn out proprietary technology that beats the competition with their desires to have products with universal appeal.

Sony, for example, opted to share the technology behind its Memory Stick, a tiny card originally meant to be slotted only into Sony gadgets for transferring data.

But what if one firm makes a big enough technological leap that it opts to go for solo dominance? We could see some brand-family feuds.

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