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Friday, January 14, 2005

Future Fone

In their May 2004 issue, Popular Science published a series of short articles that speculated on the state of various technologies ten years hence. One of these articles, by Mark Frauenfelder, caught my eye because its subject was the mobile phone (See This PDA is a Real Pocket PC.) and it addressed everything I'd been thinking about at the time. (There was a terrific concept drawing on the cover, but it doesn't seem to be present on the web. The image above is from somewhere else.) The thrust of the piece was that, ten years out, your mobile will be a do-anything device, and a strong compliment to your PC.

In fact I'd go further and say that, ten years out, your mobile will be your PC. And I for one can't wait.

The other day we were talking about something related to this, on Russell Beattie's weblog. The question at hand was, what application or capability could be added to a smartphone that would transform it from your mobile device, to your use-all-the-time device? In other words, what would it take to make your phone the first device you go to in most situations, whether out and about, at home, or at work? The following is based on what I came up with in the discussion.

I think the way to arrive at a phone that isn't context dependent, is to make it a device that serves well in all contexts. You walk into your house, phone in pocket, and it automatically connects, through some sort of Bluetooth connection, with the waiting monitor, keyboard, mouse, and optical drive. Maybe it connects with your audio system, too, in case you want music. Call coming in? No problem. The volume level of the music goes down and you answer, using a Bluetooth device nestled discreetly behind your ear.

Next morning, you leave for work. In the car your calls are handled hands-free, and your audio is sourced out of the device, also via Bluetooth. If you're taking the train and have some time, you catch up on the news, browse the internet, or watch a movie short. Afterwards maybe you make some notes, using it like a PDA. If you need to get some real work done, out comes the larger fold-away OLED screen, and, input device - a keyboard, maybe.

When you arrive at work, as you step into the office your device links up with the network, and maybe also with the phone system, if there still needs to be one. You sit down at your desk which has its own monitor and so on.

Voila, context free. Simple! And the best part about this scenario, is that you never have to think about any of this stuff, it just works when you need it to.

How far away are we from the scenario I describe above? Closer than some might think.

To arrive at full functionality on the device will require, as implied above, widespread implimentation of Virtual Private Networks. It makes sense that you'd have one for work and one for home and toggle between the two in order to keep them discrete.

And while you could envision a device that has voluminous storage capacity, I'm not sure such a thing would be necessary given sufficient bandwidth. In an ultra-broadband world it might make more sense to have your data reside elsewhere and interact with it when needed. You'd need some storage on the device, for those times when your connection is down (such as in a tunnel), but not more than a few gigs.

So I think, based on this, that we could see such devices (and such bandwidth) beginning to appear in five years or so. Certainly less than ten. Then give it another five years for additional development, buildout, and adoption, and there you are.

You can do something close to this now. Really, much of it is a question of habit and motivation level. If you *want* to acquire an advanced mobile device and use it for as much as possible - and if your work doesn't *depend* on carrying a notebook - you can actually get quite a lot done with it, all day long. Things like Vulcan Ventures' upcoming FlipStart should make it even easier.

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