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.

CES 2013: What Mattered and Why

Just after Christmas, the Consumer Electronics Show convenes in Las Vegas to showcase all that’s new for the coming year. Most of it is upgrades, retreads, and modest improvements over the past year’s stuff. Some of it suggests a new shape for the industry, and for the ways that we work, play, and communicate. Here’s a brief rundown on what might matter most:

  • The disk drive maker Seagate will soon offer a “local cloud” storage device that you can set up in your home or office. Local storage, easily reached via local wi-fi. IT professionals will recognize this as a NAS, short for Network Attached Storage. At about $250 for 4TB, the lesser configurations don’t save enough money to be worth your time.
  • Expanded uses for phones and tablets. One shining example is the new MOCET iPad Communicator. Phones and tablets are extremely versatile. Adding capabilities beyond, say, a clock radio or external speakers, will become increasingly commonplace. Remember: you’re carrying a fairly powerful computer. Why not put it to use?


    To go to the site, click on the picture.

  • OLED is a video technology that allows for very thin screens–and flexible ones. The price of manufacture is dropping, so we’ll begin to see OLED screens enter the race between plasma and LED screens. Eventually, this organic (!) technology will win out, and become commonplace. (The “O” in OLED stands for “organic.)
  • Previously, I wrote about the new 4K screens. They’re beginning to be shown as demos.
  • Touch screens and gestures will begin to replace keyboards and remote controls. As the technology allows for greater precision, older ways of interacting with computers (and tablets) and with videogames and TV sets will shift our conception of an interface into the modern age.
  • Smart phones seem to be getting larger–more screen real estate is better for mail, web, games, and movies. Tablets seems to be getting smaller (the line between a small tablet and a big phone is becoming difficult to discern). Tablets are also becoming larger–imagine what you could do with a 20-inch portable tablet! Here, we’re starting to blur the distinction between a computer monitor, a TV set and a tablet. It’s tough to forecast where these trends are heading.
  • Samsung has become the Sony of the 2010s–an exciting company with innovation in every direction. The quality is there, too. But there are still lessons to be learned about user interfaces and design.
  • Very small storage devices are continuing to expand their storage dimensions. Kingston, for example, showed off a 1TB flash drive–larger than the popular thumb drives, but still quite portable.
  • From DPReview's coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    From DPReview’s coverage, the latest Fujifilm digital camera. Click on the image to see their story.

    It’s now a regular routine: cool new cameras introduced at CES. For a solid rundown, visit DPReview. I think my favorite stuff is the expansion of Fuji small-sensor line. These cameras look like the real think, shoot terrific images, and tend to be somewhat more intuitive in their interfaces. (More on these soon.)

  • Automotive electronics has always been a key aspect of CES. Sure, car stereos and car security systems remain center stage. Now that cars plug into wall sockets, the vehicles themselves are becoming digital devices. This time around, lots of cars as harbingers. Next time, I’ll bet we start seeing hybrid devices that confuse the definitions of bicycles, motorcycles, golf carts, and other short-range transportation devices.
  • Oculus Verge

    To read The Verge’s story about the Oculus Rift, click on the image.

  • Your smartphone and/or your tablet will become a monitoring control center and remote control. You know how we’re beginning to program a DVR from afar? Or read date/time stamps on the foods in the fridge? It won’t be long before we all have a remote dashboard to tell us about the fuel in the car, the meds in the bathroom, when the last time the dog was walked, body fat, etc. add some robotic controls and digital life becomes even more interesting.
  • I’ve wondered why immersive video game displays have taken so long to gain traction in the marketplace. Now, it looks like the (Kickstarter-funded) Oculus Rift will change the way gamers see and experience the experience of game play. There’s good multimedia coverage in The Verge.
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