April 14, 2003, 1:20 PM — While it seems like another lifetime, back in 1981 I joined a just-formed company called Grid Systems Corp. Grid, like most Silicon Valley startups, was working in complete secrecy, what most refer to today as "stealth mode". The mission? To build the first laptop computer. The laptop, by the way, was bigger than the notebook that is ubiquitous today, by roughly double the pounds (11) and a few inches. The tiny monochrome display was 320x240 pixels, and it had a whopping 256K-bytes of RAM feeding an Intel 8086 processor. But it was the first computer to feature the "flip-up" screen design today ubiquitous in notebooks, and everybody wanted one despite the $8,000 price tag.
Since that experience, I've been fascinated with mobile computing and communications devices, and I've worked on countless projects to move the technology of mobility forward. The holy grail of mobility for most seems to be getting everything we need into one small box - what you might think of as the Swiss-army-knife approach. And the concept is seductive - imagine having your cell phone and PDA in one convenient package. Of course, you'll want high-speed mobile data (1XRTT or GPRS) and a Wi-Fi connection as well. And let's throw in a digital camera and a MP3 player while we're at it. And, of course, you'll want this contraption to run for at least a day without needing a recharge. And while the screen needs to be plenty big so you can see your whole schedule at a glance, the entire unit needs to be small and light enough to hold up to your head when the phone rings. And, by the way, it will need to survive repeated four-foot drops onto concrete and the many other hazards of modern life.
Wouldn't this be grand? Well, no, I've concluded, it wouldn't. Let me tell you why.
At Grid Systems, every day was an adventure. You'd arrive in the morning only to discover the problem du jour - the modem couldn't be built, the power supply wouldn't fit, or the whole thing was going to melt. And while we obviously solved all of the challenges that came our way, the issues related to building mobile devices haven't really changed very much - it's always an exercise in compromise.
For example, we want our mobile devices to be as small as possible, so they fit easily in pocket or purse (belt clips are just too nerdy for me). That's great until you put a screen on your mobile phone, and realize that a whole lot of potential customers with money to burn are over 40 and need a larger screen (who's going to whip out reading glasses to dial the phone?). And small means that everything needs to be small, including the battery. Small batteries may mean a dropped call as your phone temporarily gives up the ghost, and always at the worst possible time.