The single-device paradox

Farpoint Group –

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.

Ever try to send an e-mail with a telephone keypad? Even with predictive-typing assists (that guess as to where you're going with your hunting and multi-pecking) it's still painful, although high school kids (and Europeans with big cellular voice charges) seem to love it. So why not add a mini-keyboard to your phone? Some phones offer this option, but it's another thing to carry, lose, and drop. And that larger screen we desire for reasons of legibility or simply a little more screen context for Web-based information or reading e-mail means the mobile communicator isn't going to be small at all, and likely not very cheap. While there are some economies of scale, putting everything in one box almost always means a higher price and at least some compromise in functionality.

So I don't expect that we're going to see a popular single universal communicator any time soon. But there are lots of good approaches on the market today, including products from Handspring, Danger, Inc., and NTT DoCoMo (only in Japan for now). We're also seeing a number of great camera phones like Nokia's 3650, which can even record and distribute video in addition to still images, despite its questionable retro keypad layout. And manufacturers are now producing cell phones aimed at specific user constituencies, like Nokia's N-Gage (which is designed primarily for playing games! When all is said and done (and dialed), though, the choice is going to boil down to one of individual lifestyle and work style. You may need several mobile phones to meet all of your needs. A separate PDA will also likely be the path of choice for most people for a while longer.

As an aside, I think, like many of you, I'd be happy today if I could just get decent cellular voice service that didn't require me constantly having to ask "can you hear me now?" and that didn't drop calls so often. It doesn't matter who your carrier is; this industry still has issues - and they are getting old. Perhaps before we shoot for the ideal we might just focus on getting the basics right. But, regardless, I'm always going to want more.

The single-device paradox - that it seems as though we should be able to build the ideal mobile communicator, but to date have not - remains a reminder of the fundamental limitations inherent in mobility. I expect slow but steady progress in all of the elements of mobile devices, and regardless, the right combination of units to meet your specific requirements is likely out there today. It may not be exactly what you're looking for, but it will probably be at least close. And if it's not - well, the steady stream of new mobile phones, communicators, and other products shows no sign of slowing down.

Copyright 2003 by Farpoint Group. All rights reserved.

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