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.

Thoughts on Mobile Computing, Part One

It’s risky to generalize, but I suspect the following is true for most people, most of the time:

  • Higher-stakes projects involving significant amounts of concentration require a quiet work environment with a more powerful computer and a larger screen; and
  • Lower-stakes projects, initial planning, and work-on-the-go require a lightweight computing device, often with a smaller screen

Certainly, some people must work on the go, or prefer the flexibility of a more powerful computer on the go, and others, quite sensibly, prefer just one device, not two (or three, or more). Seems to me, the high-stakes machine ought to be a versatile notebook connected to a 20-inch or larger screen, with proper backup, and the low-stakes machine ought to weigh as close to two pounds as possible, offer all-day battery life, and easily connect to any WiFi, 3G, 4G, or whatever other service may be available. That is: the portable really ought to be portable, and no so much a full-scale machine unless you feel the need to combine functions into a single box.

iPad and iPhoneWhen the latest upgrades to the MacBook Air were released last week, I thought I might finally break my pattern–iPad for portability, iMac for serious work in the home office–with an in-between machine that could do both. After hours of research and experimentation with the Air in various settings, I decided to wait until the autumn to upgrade the iPad, once again leaving the portable out of the mix. Why? The Air does not connect via 3G/4G, but instead requires a separate network to be established on my iPhone (clunky solution, but it works). And, to my astonishment, I actually prefer the touch screen to the keyboard when computing in a mobile environment. I sacrifice a degree of functionality for the reduced weight and increased connectivity, but then, most of my mobile work does not result in an elaborate finished product–this, I do on a computer.

I suppose that’s why the call from HP was so intriguing. Here was an opportunity to experiment with a portable computer in my daily life–something I have not done in several years, and an opportunity to experiment with a Windows computer, something I had not done in a decade or more. And, the computer would be running the intriguing Windows 8 operating system, the one with the cool colored tiles. What’s more, my sample model offered 3G/4G capability.

At the same time, I decided to learn more about the $250 Google Chrome portable computer sold by Samsung. It, too, offered the connectivity that the Air sadly lacks.

Keeping an open mind about new and better ways to work, I tried the HP EliteBook 2170p. The specs are similar to a MacBook Air, and the cost is about the same (around $1,000 for the basic model). It weighs less than 3 pounds–more than that seems too heavy, at least for me, to be carried everywhere–and the feature set is similar, too. There’s a light-up keyboard, an SD card slot (more versatile here, and, BTW, absent on even the latest MacBook Air), similar processor options, no HDMI slot (odd to see a VGA port on a contemporary computer, but this one is designed for older-style business use). Screen resolution is about the same, but the images on the Air are more vivid, and the type is easier to read. The 11-inch screen size is comfortable for light work, but challenging for serious word processing, spreadsheets, even word processing–and this is true for the Air as well. It’s possible to use this computer with a 3G/4G network; this feature is sadly lacking on the Air.

Windows8Today is Sunday the 16th, and I have lunch at noon. That’s easy to see on the colorful Windows 8 interface. Right now, it’s 68 degrees and it’s going to rain today. Click through for details, and the weird non-intutitive interface design returns. It’s unclear what to do next, the brief instructions are unclear and the type is often too small to read. Click once or twice more, and the whole deal looks like Windows from the turn of the century. For reasons I do not understand, several “chickets” appear on the right side of the screen. These offer a combination of settings, search, and device access–not sure why these are shown separately, but the more I dive into Windows 8, the more I come up with “why would they do it that way?” questions. I’ve now spent several hours with Windows 8. Overall, I’d give it a “meh.”

HP-Elite-BookHow about the HP Elite as an example of a contemporary portable computer? It’s okay, but the design is boxy, it’s a little heavy for the 11-inch screen it carries (the 13-inch MacBook Air also weighs 3 pounds). It offers just one operating system (Air offers both Windows and Mac for about the same price).


For one-quarter of the price, I think most people would be able to accomplish most of their tasks on Samsung’s Chromebook, which costs $250 ($329 with 3G, which is very useful). No fuss: buy one today at neighborhood Staples store. This is a basic, 2.4 pound (lightweight!) portable–not fancy, but it is reasonably well-built and functional, if you limit your desire for functionality to word processing, web browsing, spreadsheets, presentations, email, watching movies, listening to music, and a few dozen other activities. The Chrome Web Store makes the selection and installation of a great many Chrome apps available for use on any Chrome computer, and on any computer with a Chrome browser installed. This level of flexibility is hard to find in the Apple world and nearly impossible to find in the Windows world–Google and its users benefit from a design approach that is totally 21st century, and, in fact, totally new in the 2010s. It’s fresh, inexpensive, and it works.

Here's a small sample of the many apps available in the Google Chrome store.

Here’s a small sample of the many apps available in the Google Chrome store.

It’s not easy being a Windows computer maker in 2013. There is so much legacy–so many enterprise interests to be served–that there is limited available space for innovation. Easy of use, portability, interoperability, slick interfaces, web app stores, these are not ideas that fit comfortably into an enterprise structure that demands standardization (new approach is focused, mostly, upon customization), a work-anywhere approach, high levels of security and reliability, rock-solid applications, and more. HP is one of many Windows-based computer makers who struggle with these issues. This situation has been made much more challenging by Apple’s elegant design and passionate user base, and, now, things are even more difficult because Google is changing the game with a far lower cost structure. And in here, somewhere, is the growing Android ecosystem–not quite as well-positioned but a significant force just the same.

Swing back around to the simple demands of getting work done in the office and at home, I think I’ll stand pat with the iPad because it weighs about a pound-and-a-half and easily connects to either wifi or 3G (my next one will be 4G), and an iMac at home with a larger screen. No, the iPad is not perfect (but I have surprised myself with its flexibility, and with my comfort level in using the touch screen almost all of the time and the accessory keyboard almost not at all). Yes, I pay more for the privilege of using the integrated Apple system. Comparables are emerging, sometimes offering features that Apple cannot or will not, but in the horserace, it’s Apple, Google, and perhaps Android, with Windows off in the distance in a post 20th century haze.

Coming in Part 2: thinking a few years into the future.

%d bloggers like this: