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Anyone who has shopped in Hong Kong has seen how the vendors of electronics stores go out to the street and invite customers in to see for themselves how a whole host of electronic applications have been combined into one small device. Are people tempted into buying these wares? Usually not.

The fascinating psychological-sociological question of why consumers avoid products that combine many uses has been troubling researchers in the large electronic companies. Why wouldn't people want to save space and money by buying a single product that can perform numerous functions? Why wouldn't they want to skip the hassle of needing several different items when one could do the job?

On the face of it, this is indeed a puzzling question. After all, in this digital age, people are already walking about with plenty of electronic devices in their pockets: cellular phones, pagers, hand-held computers and sometimes even a 3MP player or a digital camera. The recent improvements in miniaturization techniques makes it possible to cram a large number of transistors that can perform a large number of functions onto one small chip. Thus, the addition of a few electronic circuits turns the hand-held computer, which before could only display telephone numbers, into an actual telephone.

But this "all in one" trend is still far from producing satisfactory results. One of the few successes is the Hewlett Packard printer that is also a copying machine and a scanner. The secret of HP's success may lie in being attuned to consumer psychology. Printing, scanning and copying are all activities that are done with paper. We often print something out on paper and then take it to be copied. Or we scan a paper that just came out of the copying machine into the computer. The combination of these three machines in one makes sense to us.

Only two other products have proved successful at combining functions: the digital alarm clock-radio (of the kind found on many bedside tables) and shampoo plus conditioner in a single bottle. Some might cite the combination laser pointer/pen, a favorite of executives, as another example of a successful combination. But is it really? Has anyone ever seen an executive actually use his laser pointer as a pen?

Besides the fact that "combination devices" are frequently inconvenient to use, there appear to be three reasons why the world is reacting so warily toward these products. The first is that, for the past 50 years, they've been trying to convince us to buy a Sony television because Sony knows how to make televisions. And they've been telling us that we should buy Casio watches because Casio is the expert on watches. When Casio advertises a watch that is also a camera, we're confused. Aren't we better off buying a Minolta camera? Brand-awareness has been so thoroughly drummed into us that now it's coming back to shoot its practitioners in the foot.

The second reason has to do with the flip side of the benefits of combined functions: If a person has a hand-held computer that is also a camera and he makes use of both on a daily basis, what happens when the device stops working? All at once, the person has lost the ability to schedule meetings and the ability to take pictures of his kids.

The third reason relates to the tremendous pace of technology. The first 3MP players were introduced in the late 1990s. Within two or three years, you could already find them combined with an endless number of other devices. Digital cameras also are not the be-all and end-all they were cracked up to be. Not everyone could easily adjust to the fact that the final product is a photo on the computer and not in the photo album. And no sooner have we grasped this peculiarity, then we are told that we should be taking pictures with the cellular phone - another recent invention.

But not to despair. The technology companies will eventually discovery the secret of success embodied by the best-selling combination device ever invented, for which Carl Elsener received a patent on June 12, 1897: the Swiss army knife.