This article was written as an assignment for my Computer Science studies at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. I wrote it together with Daniel van Dorp. Note that we're certainly no experts on the subject, so - aside from the information derived from the listed sources - most of this article is based on conjecture and speculations. Feel free to comment on both our ideas and our interpretation of sources.
With the deep penetration of mobile devices in both western and emerging markets, there’s no question about the impact of mobile computing in everyday life. In the rapidly evolving landscape of ubiquitous computing, we see more and more tasks that were traditionally better suited for personal computers, taken over by smartphones, tablets and other mobile peripherals. One might argue that mobile devices of today can be considerend personal computers in their own right. When we look at the numbers, we’re getting close to a point where more smartphones are sold each day, than personal computer OSes. There are still, however, some scenarios in which the traditional personal computer is favored over it’s smaller brethren.
In this article we will explore the possibilities of mobile devices taking the role of personal computers altogether. We will look at the developments in hardware and software necessary for such a transition and we will consider the economic stimuli for such an evolution.
Mobile usage: a division by context
In the world we live in today, our smartphone has become a connectivity centre in the broadest sense of the word, a personal assistant, an entertainment centre and much more. Despite it’s deep connection with our daily lives and the vast possibilities, both in terms of hardware and software, we still seem reluctant to devote our mobile companion to tasks related to content creation. Because, for many people, creating content is related to work, this means, in practice, that we end up using our traditional personal computer the most in work-‐related environment. It is here that we get confronted the most with the apparent limitations of mobile computing.
The growing computing power of mobile devices – who must for all intends and purposes answer to Moore’s law, just as much as any other computational device – rules out the need for personal computers for the “heavy lifting”, purely based on raw numbers like CPU speed or RAM size. One could argue that, when it comes to computing power, your mobile phone could just as easily do the required spreadsheet calculations as your iMac. The way users interact with those devices, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Both in terms of innovative uses of tactile hardware to support a smooth user experience, and in terms of software supporting those interactions, there is still some progress to be made here.
Hardware and software: limitations and advances
With mobile hardware growing smaller, there is need for a different approach to the way a user operates a mobile device. (“The Future of Mobile Device Research in HCI” – Jacob O. Wobbrock) Modern touch screens still don’t possess the needed tactile precision to let users input data at high speeds and with a small rate of errors. This is partly because of a phenomenon know as “Fat finger syndrom” Patrick Baudisch, a professor in Computer Science, who specializes in the “minitiaturization of mobile devices and touch input”, came up with some ideas on how to solve these problems. One of the options he proposes, is to push the limits of miniaturization to the point of devices almost disappearing, and conversely to abandon the traditional touch screens in favor of both different forms of input and different forms of output. Speech recognition and gesture-‐based input could replace touch screens here in terms of input. Output could be auditory as well, instead of visual. The latter would also help to solve the problem of the overall aging of the population, who will want the ability to use mobile devices too, despite any visual impairments.
In his keynote speech at MobileHCI 2010, he proposes some other methods of enhancing input and ouput capabilities, dealing with the relatively small screensize. Expanding beyond the boundaries of the screen can be done by projecting the screenimage on an external surface, or by integrating a spatial component in the viewing experience whereby the content changes depending on the orientation of the device. An additional form of input could be found in the form of a touchpad on the rearside of a device. And on the software side the way touch is registered could be augmented with fingerprint recognition. Studies have shown that this increases the accuracy up to 100%. Additionally, it offers a great way of identifying the user and adjusting the operation of the device to the specific user’s preferences. There’s also the possibility of a new resurgence of workstation-‐based computing, in which the user will plug his mobile device in, in a set of peripherals, in different environments and contexts. This development is foreshadowed by Motorola’s Atrix 4G phone, which optionally includes a laptop-‐like docking station.
The operation of mobile devices should also be adaptive to the environment they’re being used in. They should respond to situational impairments. Current examples include automatic backlight adjustment influenced by sunlight. But the temperature should also be taken into account here, especially with regards to (capacitive) touch surfaces.
As far as software goes, apart from the necessary adaptions and support in order for the above described hardware to work, we’re looking at a fully cloud-‐based solution. With 24/7 connectivity becoming the norm, it’s only natural that we store as much data as we can, in the cloud. This enables us to seamlessly switch between devices and still have our data with us at all times.
The economic imperative
In 2010, there were over 800 million PC’s used world-‐wide. What about the other 6 billion people, a lot of whom are part of the emerging markets? With over 3,2 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide in 2008, and with that number growing faster each day, and the arguments and solutions provided in this article, one could argue that initiatives like “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) are focussing on the wrong technology. The cost for such a low-‐ budget laptop drives that point home very strongly: the screen on an OLPC laptop costs $10 per diagonal inch, and that will drop at most to $7 a $8 per inch. (“The display on your laptop costs roughly $10 a diagonal inch. It may drop to $8 or $7, but it will it will not drop to $2.” - Negroponte, TED Talk, Feb 2006) As it turns out, the limitations on a cheap laptop-‐like device, are familiar: a small screen, low-‐power access and internet connectivity. Mobile devices seem to fit that description very well, and with such a high penetration, even in those emerging markets. It seems they are a very real alternative to empower the growing technological needs of 3rd world countries.
Conclusion: a new way of thinking
As we have showed in this article, not only does the need exist for mobile devices that can handle every mundane task, both from a standpoint of technological evolution as from an economic point of view, the technological possilities to make it happen are not that far off. Possibly the greatest step that needs to be taken, however, is to change a common mindset that has grown from 30 years of using personal computers in our everyday lives.