Thoughts on Mobile, Part Three: Connecting Dots 4, 5, 6

Yesterday’s post ran long, so I decided to cut it in half. Here’s the rest of it, or the third in a series of two articles. (Something like that…)

A group video call on Skype.

A group video call on Skype.

Dot #4: Connectivity and Sharing. Here in the 21st century, we demand not only connectivity but sharing of information in real time. We fall short in whiteboard-type environments where we can see ideas and people simultaneously, and when we do, the interaction is sub-par, but this will steadily improve through Skype, Google, and new ventures. All portable devices must connect anywhere, at any time–this is a shortcoming of some apps (Evernote, for example) and some devices (most portable computers, unless a separate wireless hot spot is generated by a nearby cell phone). This is foolish retro-thinking. The next generation of computers, tablets, all devices should include built-in connectivity for WiFi, 3G, 4G, and so on. Fortunately, these devices and their related systems work very well. And, fortunately, the technology is constantly improving to allow more throughput, faster speeds, fewer problems, and increased security. What we don’t have quite yet is a kind of super-DropBox where it’s easy to share any document on any device, regardless of whether it’s in the cloud or on a specific device. VPN (Virtual Private Network) technology resembles a solution, but what we need is a more robust, full-featured, easy-to-use system. I suspect Apple and Google are hard at work developing something to do this job–they’re already on the way with Google Docs and the new iWork set for release later this year.


Dot #5: Output. This one is confusing. I own an iPad which doesn’t do well in an environment where printed documents are the standard. Most printers won’t talk to a tablet–though some now have email addresses for that purpose (yes, some printers have email addresses–seems confusing, I know). When I was using a portable computer, I often printed documents. With the tablet, I find myself storing documents and reading them on the tablet’s screen. Far less printing. Almost none, in fact. My output is, typically, an email to someone who wants or needs to read something I wrote. I do print some documents for reference, but printed documents are difficult to revise, so I tend to focus on digital copies. The file folder in my briefcase were once filled with paper, but now, not so much. Even handwritten notes are being replaced by the notes that I take on the tablet–when they’re in Evernote, they’re very easily shared with my other devices and with other people via email or shared settings.

Dot #6: Portable. For me, this means the device goes just about everywhere I go. In that regard, the iPhone (any smartphone, really) is a suitable solution, if one with a too-small screen. There is access to web and email, phone, messaging, internet, iWork documents, Evernote, the list goes on. The tablet does not go everywhere because it’s a little too big, even for someone like me who is rarely seen outside my home without a shoulder bag. There’s some minor conflict here about size: the phone ought to be larger, the iPad needs to be both small enough to carry everywhere (the iPad Mini) but large enough to provide a full page of printed material or to create diagrams or word processing documents or spreadsheets or presentations (the iPad full-size model). At first, I was sure I would need a keyboard, so I bought one and thought I’d carry it everywhere. I don’t. In fact, I use the portable keyboard only when I have a lot of writing to do away from home–not so often, as it turns out.

How long does the device need to run between recharges? Eight hours seems pretty reasonable, more is nice.

GoalZero's external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

GoalZero’s external solar charger is convenient, but this technology should be built into every portable device.

Any accessories required, as one might carry with a portable computer? Absolutely not.

One further notion about portability: the device must be easily used anywhere. With an iPad or tablet of sufficient size, that’s anywhere at all, standing, sitting, lying down. With a portable computer, a desktop surface makes the process so much more comfortable–though some people can work with the computer on their lap (I need a fat pillow to do that, and the computer tends to slide around). The tablet can be raised or lowered to adjust for eye position and lighting; this is difficult to do with a portable computer.

Of course, everyone’s needs are different, and some people use their portable device as a power tool. For most users, I suspect this is overkill–just like a gigantic SUV might be for local grocery runs and soccer practice.

What’s next? I think we’ll see keyboards becoming vestigial, and improved touch screens as the standard for portable devices. I know the devices will become faster, contain more storage, offer better screens and longer battery power, and we all know that prices will remain quite low, but will slowly rise. There will be more pocketable devices, and attempts to move away from a traditional flat screen. OLED technology, for example, allows a screen to roll up for storage. This will be the next frontier, worthy because the size of the screen is the key determinant for portability. Once that dot becomes more flexibly defines, all of the other dots line up in support. That’s the longer-term future.


For the shorter-term future, I’d look to combining my tablet and phone into a single device that works and plays nicely with a more powerful computer (which will also evolve) in my home or office.

And what about power? Since they can be charged almost anywhere, I like solar cells. They’re small, flat, and becoming affordable. I also like charging mats. AC adapters are probably unavoidable, but better batteries make them less essential.

Sorry for the long post, and for the multiple parts. This was interesting to write, so I just kept going.

Thoughts on Mobile, Part Two: Connecting Dots

Dot #1: Input. In order to operate any sort of computer, you need to provide it with the information floating around in your brain.

Dot #2: Display. In order to process the information that you’re pouring into the computer, you need to see, hear, or otherwise sense your work-in-progress.

Dot #3: Storage. Whatever you input and display, you need to be able to keep it, and, change it. Also, it would be best if there was a second copy, preferably somewhere safe.

Dot #4: Connection and Sharing. Seems as though every 21st century device needs to be able to send, receive, and share information, often in a collaborative way.

Dot #5: Output. In some ways, this concept is losing relevance. Once displayed, stored and shared, the need to generate anything beyond a screen image is beginning to seem very twentieth century. But it’s still around and it needs to be part of the package.

Dot #6: Portable. Truly portable devices must be sufficiently small and lightweight, serve the other needs in dots 1-5, and also, carry or collect their own power, preferably sufficient for a full day’s (or a full week’s use) between refueling stops.

Let’s take these ideas one at a time and see where the path leads.

Dot #1: Input. Basically, the “man-machine” interface can be achieved in about five different mays. Mostly, these days, we use our hands, and in particular, our fingertips, and to date, this has served us well both on keyboards (which require special skill and practice, but seem to keep pace with the speed of thinking in detail), and on touch screens (which are not yet perfect, but tend to be surprisingly good if the screen is large enough). ThinkGeek sells a tiny Bluetooth projector that displays a working keyboard on any surface.


There is the often under-rated Wacom tablets, which use a digital pen, but this, like a trackpad, requires abstract thinking–draw here, and the image appears there. It’s better, more efficient, and ultimately, probably more precise, to use a stylus directly on the display surface. So far, touch screens are the best we can do. Insofar as portable computing goes, this is probably a good thing because the combination of input (Dot #1) and display (Dot #2) reduce weight, and allow the user direct interaction with the work.


This combination is becoming popular not only on tablets (and phones), but on newer touch-screen laptops, such as the HP Envy x2 (visit Staples to try similar models). The combination is useful on a computer, but more successfully deployed on a tablet because the tablet can be more easily manipulated–brought closer to the eyes, handled at convenient angles, and so on.

Moving from the fingers to other body parts, speaking with a computer has always seemed like a good idea. In practice, Dragon’s voice recognition works, as does Siri, both based upon language pattern recognition developed by Ray Kurzweil. So far, there are limitations, and most are made more challenging by the needs of of a mobile user: a not-quiet environment, the need for a reliable microphone and digital processing with superior sensitivity and selectivity, artificial intelligence superior to the auto-correct feature on mobile systems–lots to consider, which makes me think voice will be a secondary approach.


Eyes are more promising. Some digital cameras read movement in the eye (retinal scanning), but it’s difficult to input words or images this way–the science has a ways to go. The intersection between Google Glass and eye movement is also promising, but early stage. Better still would be some form of direct brain output–thinking generates electrical impulses, but we’re not yet ready to transmit or decode those impulses into messages suitable for input into a digital device. This is coming, but probably not for a decade or two. Also, keep an eye on the glass industry–innovation will lead us to devices that are flexible, lightweight, and surprising in other ways.

So: the best solution, although still improving, is probably the combination tablet design with a touch-screen display, supported, as needed on an individual basis, by some sort of keyboard, mouse, stylus, or other device for convenience or precision.

(BTW: Wikipedia’s survey of input systems is excellent.)

As for display, projection is an interesting idea, but lumens (brightness) and the need for a proper surface are limiting factors. I have more confidence in a screen whose size can be adjusted. (If you’re still thinking in terms of an inflexible, rigid glass rectangle, you might reconsider and instead think about something thinner, perhaps foldable or rollable, if that’s a word.

Dot #3: Storage has already been transformed. For local storage, we’re moving away from spinning disks (however tiny) and into solid state storage. This is the secret behind the small size of the Apple MacBook Air, and all tablets. These devices demand less power, and they respond very, very quickly to every command. They are not easily swapped out for larger storage devices, but they can be easily enhanced with SD cards (size, speed, and storage capacity vary). Internal “SSD” (Solid State Device) storage will continue to increase in size and decrease in cost, so this path seems likely to be the one we follow for the foreseeable future. Add cloud storage, which is inexpensive, mostly reliable (we think), mostly private and secure (we think), the opportunity for low-cost storage for portable devices becomes that much richer. Of course, the latter requires a connection to Dot #4: Storage. Connecting these two dots is the core of Google’s Chrome strategy.

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