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Old 03-27-2007, 06:23 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Mobile computing - What is "mobile" anyway?

The appearance of UMPCs, and the resulting discussions about mobility have caused me to rethink the whole concept of "portable" devices. What do we really care about when we say we want a device to be mobile?

For example, at one time a small notebook computer was the perfect example of wonderful mobility in computing. I used an older Dell notebook at work, and I can tell you that it's not my idea of easily portable. It didn't have an integrated optical drive. The battery life was appalling. It didn't have built-in WiFi. And if I carried it around, it really needed to be in a protective case. So what appeared to be a wonderfully portable and mobile solution was miserable.

The tiny, sleek notebook computer by itself was wonderful. But I had to add an optical drive, shell for the drive, AC power cord, network wire, WiFi card, heavy and bulky laptop case, etc. Now my portable computer was not so portable after all.

So what does this mean? Everyone has different needs, but let me point out some of the key concepts that I think are repeated over and over to describe portability, but are outside the usual concept of actual product dimensions.

I want to shake up the concept of (useful) mobility by presenting it in these terms:
1) Battery Life
2) "The Whole Package"
3) Size
4) Value

Let me explain...

1) Battery Life
You might think it odd that I put this first. But I think it's number one. Even a regular size laptop computer would be more portable in my mind than a UMPC if you could get 8 hrs with the built in battery. You could grab it and go, maybe.

2) Critical accessories are built-in or easily "packaged"
Samsung has done us a great favor with it's Q1 portfolio case. It hold the Q1 and a keyboard, showing us that functionality is not always about what is built in to the device. It what we carry around and how convenient the whole package is. I personally prefer a convertible tablet form factor, but you can't deny the advantages of a slate with a keyboard/portfolio.

3) Size
Yes, I didn't ignore this completely because it's important. People understand the advantages, and the tradeoffs, of a pocket-sized device. But, so far, only a few of us are really grabbing hold of the advantages and tradeoffs of having a UMPC-sized device. I like this description from Vikram Madan, a UMPC development manager at Microsoft. "...a fully functional form-factor that fits in your hands, lets you take all your ‘digital stuff’ with you everywhere you go, keeps you linked to your world from anywhere, and enables you to make the best use of your precious time - irrespective of whether you are working, relaxing, traveling, sharing kids’ pictures with GrandMa, pitching ad-funded web startup ideas to VCs, getting sued for copyright-infringing-user-uploaded content, or just plain ol' trying-to-attract-the-attention-of-attractive-strangers-in-cafés."

Many of us used to carry around Franklin planners because it was worth the effort to have our information with us at all times. How cool is it to be able to do that now with all the additional value of a UMPC?!

But for some, a laptop will be sufficient, or a slate Tablet PC. Others will only use a desktop. As more form factors emerge, mobility is becoming a spectrum of choices rather than something you either have or don't have with a device.

That's a good thing.

4) Value (Usefulness)
We don't normally talk about usefulness as a criteria for portability or mobility, but if we are talking about whether or not a device has value in a mobile role, we had better include it, mustn't we? (Is that really a word?)

Smartphones are becoming quite capable, and it won't be too long before the true constraints are directly due to the form factor. Right now we are limited by the form factor (small screen no room for keyboards or big batteries, etc). But eventually, we will get down to a simple matter of space for features that interface with the user, like a keyboard or screen or holographic projection or whatever.

For some, that limiting factor will destroy its usefulness, and they will need to move to a UMPC with a full-fledged OS, and increased compatibility. What "full-fledged OS" means in the future is a whole different question, but let's just say for now that people like to be able to use the same OS as they would on a desktop. They want the device to be functional, comfortable to use, and compatible. Again, that's a big win for UMPC mobility.

But notice that it's about the tradeoff. Useful mobility depends on the value. We are "buying" mobility by sacrificing usefulness. (And in many cases, a lot of money also. Mobility is expensive right now!)

My Personal Preferences

*) "Pocket" mobility
I love my Treo. I carry it with me everywhere. Sometimes I even turn the phone on. I can watch video, listen to music or audiobooks, read e-books, look at documents or reference material, do word processing, browse the web, check the news, read the Bible, dictate for transcription, look up phone numbers, watch TV, scribble notes on the screen, get directions, find restaurants, look at maps, get the weather, play games, do email or IM, look things up in Wikipedia or a dictionary, and so much more. It "even" has an address book and calendar. I don't know what I'd do without it!

*) Franklin Planner mobility
This is the next great horizon that I eagerly await. It's "sort of" here, but processors and energy efficiency have a way to go. A small UMPC, with a nice on-screen keyboard or keyboard portfolio gives a powerful solution. You can do most desktop PC work on it, despite the small screen that is a small price to pay for convenience. You can take notes on it, keep your information and video/audio/pictures/e-books on it and you can run regular Windows software. Unfortunately, they are expensive, battery life is not 6-8hrs with standard batteries, they are underpowered, run too hot, the screens are hard to see in direct sunlight, and so forth. But I still want one, of course! And they will improve fast over the next couple of years.

I don't think most people would have wanted to carry a $1300 Franklin planner. But I bet that many people would be willing to carry a $500 UMPC. Time will tell, but I think it will be too convenient to pass up. For those of you with a Sony Reader, imagine full UMPC functionality on that form factor and keep the long battery life. It's so nice to think about. Almost too good to be anything but science fiction.

*) Desktop
Okay, so even a fanatic doesn't always demand mobility. A desktop computer is just what I want much of the time. The price, power and expandability is a wonderful option. Some people no longer need a desktop computer once they have a laptop. Some people will still want one. It's all about preferences and needs.

Conclusion

My goal was to help us take another look at what mobility is becoming and to help us break out of the mindset of pocket phone vs laptop vs desktop. Right now, it may seem like it's a new perspective. But in 20 years, everyone on the street will see things this way. Their perceptions won't be artificially molded by previous product sets like we are. It's a whole new world of mobile computing, and it's just around the corner. Let me know if I've succeeded.

BTW, the article photo is a reduced version of a picture in the UMPCportal.com gallery. They have some really nice pictures of the UW70x series of UMPC devices that we are eagerly awaiting on the market. Their gallery and site are well worth a look.

Last edited by Bob Russell; 03-28-2007 at 10:34 AM. Reason: Typos fixed.
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Old 03-27-2007, 07:15 PM   #2
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"Mustn't" is definitely a word, Bob.

I think this is a more useful set of criteria than I've encountered before. But let me throw one more category into the mix: Dockable Mobility.

For me, I think the ideal would be a Sony Reader sized device (probably thicker) with current iliad battery life (15 hours, while a bit skimpy for a reading device, is really quite excellent for a portable PC), and some sort of serviceable keyboard, that can pretty much do everything my desktop can, but has a docking station that gives me a full sized keyboard/monitor/mouse set up, plus ports for drives/printers/etc. Ideally I'd like it to recognize when it's on the dock and adjust the display resolution between appropriate settings for the situation -- I want something higher than 800X600 (for instance) on a 19" LCD monitor, but I also want a bit lower than 1280X1024 on a built in 7" screen. (could I even see the start button?!?)

I'm thinking that would give most of the best of both approaches. You have the full functions of a desktop when you want them or need to do 'serious' computing/ebook formatting/gaming/whatever, but when you pick it up and go, you can still easily get to the things you most want while mobile like address book, notes, presentations, GPS Navigation, etc. Plus you can still do most of the heavier stuff (word processing, spreadsheets, coding, etc.) on the go if you really have/want to, just at a reduced level of convenience/efficiency.

And of course when you get to the office, or home, depending on what direction you're headed, you just plop it on the other dock there, and you've got all your files and apps right there, with all the preferences set up the way you like them to do whatever you're doing most efficiently. It always takes me about 3 days to readjust my PC here at work when they give us new ones.
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Old 03-28-2007, 06:24 AM   #3
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I particularly like the "value" checklist point - this is really what differentiates a toy from a tool.

In 1999 Psion brought out the Psion7 / Netbook - if this device were given 3 or 4 things it would be my perfect portable device - a better screen, a better browser and wifi/bluetooth (and wifi calendar sync).

I have a Psion 7, battery life was 3-4 days of real usage, software sync was great, it had a proper keyboard, a 9 inch screen, protective (and very cool) builtin clamshell case, a touch screen etc ...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psion_7

...in technology we never seem to learn much from great designs of the past ...

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Old 03-28-2007, 01:25 PM   #4
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Bob & NatCH, I one additional term(?) to consider is "time". For example, remember the Osborne 1 Computer - the very first "mobile" computer. At the time it had value because you could "easily" take it from one place to another. Today it would be a boat anchor & a heavy one at that.

Bottom line if value is definitely a function of time.
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Old 03-28-2007, 03:50 PM   #5
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That's a great point... our expectations are shaped a lot by what is possible, and that changes over time. Without such realism, we could just talk about a device on a keychain with full desktop capabilities, perfect virtual keyboard and display, and infinite battery life!

I like James Kendrick's tag line on JKOTR , a great site with him and Kevin Tofel -- "...using mobile devices since they weighed 30 lbs." And, believe it or not, that refers to an Osborne computer that he used. What a clunker!

But I think you guys exaggerate! According to Wikipedia, it "only" weighed 23.5 lbs!
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Old 03-28-2007, 04:02 PM   #6
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Keychain? Piffle. I want the rice-grain sized, implanted, neural interfaced super-computer! Talk about the ultimate e-reader!
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Old 03-29-2007, 02:33 AM   #7
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I've been a mobile user since the day my company hand out a 755CD. It'll last for just under 2 hours with a brand new battery but as it ages, you're lucky to get 30 minutes. So you right to put battery life on the top of the list. But what impresses me is how the carrying case morphed, from a simple sling bag, to a back-pack, a stroll-along, and lately, just leave it in the office cupboard. We're back to a table top device, same conclussion of how this form factor, the laptop, isn't really as portable as we wanted it to be.

I like the dockable mobility concept proposed by NatCH where your essential data files can be transportable and perhaps view and/or edit sparingly, but would need to be "docked" to a standard desktop for heavy duty work. I think something like this will suit me nicely. It should fit in a standard shirt pocket. I'm still a back-pack user, not ready to move to a stroll-along bag, but definitely don't want to don a fanny bag
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Old 03-29-2007, 08:05 AM   #8
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As I see it, a lot of the "Dockable Mobility" idea I'm thinking of (and that others seem to like), is arguably available in some of the UMPCs that are starting to appear. I'd like them to get a bit farther along for my own purposes, but a number of them are fairly close as it is.

For instance, you have the OQO on the small side, and the Motion LS800 on the larger end of the devices I'd consider 'nearly there'. Both are eminently portable, relatively usable on their own, pretty powerful, with ample storage, and have pretty nice looking docking solutions available.

If I had to make a choice between them at the present, I'd lean more towards the LS800, but that seems to go back and forth for me. I'm not saying that they're what I ideally have in mind, but since I can't have the implantable one, they're examples of devices that are 'getting there' in my opinion.
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Old 03-29-2007, 08:23 AM   #9
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There is a big difference between portable and mobile. Batteries. The first Mac was portable, so was the Osborne.
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Old 03-29-2007, 10:49 AM   #10
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My Apple ][c actually weighed about as much as a modern laptop (the ][e was lighter), as I recall, of course the 10" monochrome monitor weight about twice as much as a modern laptop, and the powder-coated cast-iron stand the monitor was on weighed about as much as the CPU, and it didn't run on any sort of batteries, of course, and ....
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Old 03-29-2007, 01:24 PM   #11
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Back when I worked at Sun, there was this idea of Java chips. Scott McNealy had one embedded in a ring. The rest of us had more prosaic badge cards that we could use to login at various Sun locations and connect to the server where our accounts (including files) were stored. But that all depended on network access -- very little info was stored on the card chip itself.

Still, I like the idea of a very small "computer" with storage, OS, etc. that you can stick in any of a number of I/O devices and have the same access. You'd keep it in a PDA sized device while wandering around, but you could pop it into a docking station for full keyboard and large monitor access. We'll have something like that someday. Probably within 5-10 years. (USB drives are almost there now.)
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Old 03-29-2007, 02:29 PM   #12
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I'd rather have your 'Infopad'. Tiny stuf is made to loose. Mankind has been trained for centuries to carry books, why not keep on with that physical size.
Sure there are applications where small is better. It's not because we can now make them smaller that everything has to be.

BTW I like small cars à la 'Smart', it's more ecofriendly. Why don't they make those SUVs Shrink? Now there is a category that needs reducing!
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Old 03-29-2007, 02:45 PM   #13
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Waring: massively off-topic

The trouble with SUV's is that there's a need for large vehicles (I didn't say everyone who has one needs it, just that some do), and the CAFE regulations that the U.S. passed in the '70s somehow made it prohibitive to keep making station wagons (I don't understand the details, I'm afraid). That may not be too much of a loss, considering most station wagons were ugly enough to qualify as pollution just on looks, but I digress.

I've wanted a "larger than sedan" but "smaller than a grocery store" vehicle for some time, but the choices for such just haven't been there. I was hopeful that the Chrysler PT Cruiser would fit my needs there, but they seem to have done everything they could to minimize internal space on that thing (it would've helped if they hadn't piled it on a Dodge Neon frame like a hay bale on a skate-board). These days I'm quite excited about the Chevy HHR, it's not huge, but it has a surprising amount of internal space for its size, and it's pretty fuel efficient (we rented one for a trip to the mountains last year, and it got ~35 MPG on the highway, and ~29 in the mountains, not too shabby). I've been a Saturn driver since fall of 1993 (I'm on my second one ), and I was a bit unenthusiastic about the idea of going to a Chevy, but then I found out that the HHR and the Saturn Ion have the same frame, power-plant and drive train, so it's really just a Saturn with a different body style. So I plan to go that way when I wear out my current '96 Saturn SL2, which may take a while: it only has ~45k on it (I bought it from a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays).
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Old 03-29-2007, 04:58 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yvanleterrible
Tiny stuf is made to loose.
That's why God made pockets!
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Old 03-29-2007, 10:15 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NatCh
The trouble with SUV's is that there's a need for large vehicles (I didn't say everyone who has one needs it, just that some do), and the CAFE regulations that the U.S. passed in the '70s somehow made it prohibitive to keep making station wagons (I don't understand the details, I'm afraid).
The CAFE standards made station wagons less profitable for car companies to make. They could make more money by repackaging pickup trucks, because the truck emissions standards were more lax. Enter the SUV "craze."

Quote:
Originally Posted by NatCh
I've been a Saturn driver since fall of 1993 (I'm on my second one ), and I was a bit unenthusiastic about the idea of going to a Chevy, but then I found out that the HHR and the Saturn Ion have the same frame, power-plant and drive train, so it's really just a Saturn with a different body style.
One way to think of it. You could also say the Ion is just a Chevy with a different body style.

So says the Tiburon driver. Hatchbacks rule!
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