Thursday, February 14, 2013

Future of Mobile Computing

It's true that the lines between traditional mobile computing and desktop computing are blurring. The big OS vendors like Microsoft and Apple are producing products to enable a common approach to both mobile and desktop computing. Certainly work has been going into the 'one OS to rule them all' story even amongst smaller players like Ubuntu mobile. Also exciting is connected, m2m, technology for example with Blackberry's QNX. All these concepts & products are of course not the final step in a mobile world and history shows that arguably the best technology does not always win out (e.g. BETA vs VHS).  But I'm hoping that the concepts and new technology, if not the next best thing, are a stepping stone towards it.

It could be argued that User Interface is one area that really enabled a massive uptake of computing. Not that long ago a lot of companies had a secretarial pool and hand written business would be retyped by the pool. Once user friendly computers where introduced there was a real shift to word processing and shared documents.  Likewise with IOS and gesture based input the tablet market exploded. I'm excited to see the advances in the "minority-report" style interfaces, tactile feedback, and hope that more is done with mind machine interfaces.

Another angle driving change is technology and materials sciences like with bendable glass, larger screens, faster processors, smaller higher capacity memory, and better batteries. With the advent of powerful smart phones and tablets a lot of computing shifted from the desktop. I for one now use my tablet/phone more than my desktop PC at home. With everyone scrambling to make "smart watches" and new device form factors this area of wearable technology is a growth segment.

Finally software that combines the best features of OS and hardware along with improving the way we communicate, work, or play is integral to advancements in computing. Sometimes this might be a new way of doing something we are already doing (like Microsoft's ribbon in Office) or a completely new way of leveraging the crowd, take social networking and marketing as examples.

It appears to me that it is a combination of technologies coming together that produce step changes in how computing is used. For example a great interface without the processing power may be unresponsive and stop user adoption. Or connected devices without useful software may limit uptake.

So stepping back to try to understand where mobile computing is going I figure a good starting point is to consider the high level use cases. I've come up with some categories:
  • Communicating (phone calls, basic emails, facebook, twitter, texting)
  • Alerting (push, pop-ups, pager style events)
  • Searching (research, location based, historical, previous interests, or other meta data)
  • Capturing (photos, video, text, voice)
  • Working (work flows, checklists, order taking, approving, timesheeting)
  • Entertaining (gaming, watching content)
  • Creating (editing spreadsheets, video, design, complex email creation)
Now for each of these categories I looked at how (for me) do different computing device styles rate for each category. Note I also use my television for the communicating, searching, and entertaining categories but I'll leave that discussion for my post on the Internet of a thing.

MobileDeskTopTablet
CommunicatingHighLowMedium
AlertingHighLowMedium
SearchingMediumHighHigh
CapturingHighLowMedium
WorkingMediumHighMedium
EntertainingMediumHighHigh
CreatingLowHighLow

Of course your use of computing could be slightly different and you can argue around each of the classifications for individual users (for example a power user may find that they can only search effectively on a desktop) but my thoughts are:
  • A mobile device / phone fits in the pocket, is easy to quickly access enabling better alerting, communicating, and capturing.
  • A desktop has the best CPU, security, screen real estate, memory, and input mechanism but is not portable, takes time to start up, and I cannot be in front of it all the time. 
  • A tablet is basically a phone with a slightly bigger screen (and arguably a better CPU, ram, storage).
What about laptops you ask? Well from this perspective they are the same as desktops. They can be moved from desktop to desktop but do not start up fast, their screen real estate is limited compared to desktops, they are not suitable for taking quick snaps of events, typically are not always on and therefore not reliable as an alerting/communication mechanism.

So mobile computing is not for every task (yet) and I believe a combination of improvements to interface, hardware, materials science, and software will continue to bring mobile computing closer to just being computing. My longer term vision of the future: 'google glasses' style contact lenses with mind machine interface, augmented reality, and swarm/cluster style processing, data storage, and device integration. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this exciting area of technology.