2008/03/03

Mobile Computing, The Cloud & Online/Offline

The past week has seen a worthwhile 'conversation' about mobile computing, the cloud ('Skynet') and online/offline issues.

These developments in mobile, cloud computing and online/offline tools are exciting because of the inevitable innovation which competition and technological advances will deliver to consumers. The fast pace of change will bewilder and frustrate some, but for those people who enjoy new ways of working and of being in touch with others, the next two to five years will be intensely interesting and filled with opportunities. Examples of those opportunities are developments coming in 'open' cell phones with Android and the 700 MHz C block cell spectrum recent auction and the location-based services being enabled by GPS and cell tower triangulation on cell phones.

As high-speed internet access becomes more ubiquitous, as those speeds gradually increase and as Moore's Law enables more capable portable computing devices, people are moving more of their 'computer' activities to online mode in an off-site location. 'Online mode' implies use of web applications such as Google Docs, Basecamp or a Zoho suite, use of online data file storage, or a high level of web interaction whilst also working with computer programs installed on their computer (client applications). 'Off-site location' refers to places where computing is done other than a traditional work office or a person's home. The off-site locations could be a coffee shop with free wifi, a city park, or, in the case of an iPhone, wherever you happen to be as long as you can get an AT&T signal or a wifi connection.

Tech blogger Robert Scoble is on the extreme edge of cloud computing and would like everything to be online. Ryan Stewart from Adobe talks about online/offline issues surrounding Adobe and Microsoft products. And Nicholas Carr mused about the possibility of Microsoft launching its long-anticipated Ray Ozzie-led web apps to challenge competitors' productivity web apps and a massive data center initiative.

These and other recent articles and posts got me thinking about the computing setup which would be ideal for me. It would have five primary 'computing' devices and look something like this:
  1. Converged-device cell phone that's always with me
  2. Laptop for comfortable extended typing and viewing when working 'off-site'
  3. Desktop with two or three 19+" LCD monitors for most effective computing while at primary work/home location
  4. Mini-projector for 'off-site' group viewing
  5. Portable printer for generating 'off-site' hard-copy
The cell phone will be an iPhone or Gphone type of device that has as large a screen as possible and provides 24/7/365 'net connectivity via the cell phone signal or wifi. This device will give me as close to guaranteed web access as is possible. It will have reasonably-priced plan for voice, data, GPS and other web services -- $60/month would be a good starting point, with that dropping to $40 as infrastructure and technology improve and more people sign up for the service. Such a device would be attractive at a $200 to $400 price point.

The laptop will have a 13" - 14" screen as a compromise between the much smaller screens and keypads of the cell phone, an Asus EEE or various UMPCs and the un-portableness of a 17" desktop-replacement laptop which has enviable screen real estate and computing power. It will have at least 8 hours of normal computing power in its 'battery' even when that power source is a year old. I will use this laptop when I'm out and about, such as enjoying a 'work' change of scenery at a local coffee shop or having a client meeting that necessitates use of my computer.

The workhorse computer will be a highly-capable but not top-end unit with either two or three 19" or larger LCD monitors. The size and number of monitors will depend largely on available desk space in my primary 'working' location. Multiple monitors is the *only* way to go. Once you get used to working with more than one monitor, you feel inefficient and deprived if you have only one screen.

The micro-projector and portable printer are handy devices for collaborating and communicating with groups of two or more people. It's a bit annoying for two people to watch or discuss what's on a cell phone or 14" laptop screen, and it's extremely ineffective to have groups of five or six people trying to all look at the same screen. Micro-projectors, such as the Microvision PicoP, that fit in a shirt pocket have been developed and should be available for <$300 in a few years. At some point in the future, the converged cell phone will probably contain a micro-projector that can easily allow you to share the display of either the cell phone or laptop. I currently use a Canon i80 portable printer, and it is a worthwhile investment for those situations where I'm off-site and need to update written documents. There are still situations where it's easiest to review documents when they are in hard-copy form or where it's nice to be able to leave a paper document in someone's hands after you meet with them. The Canon printer is fantastic for low-quantity color or black printouts on the spot. The only negative aspect of the Canon i80 is that I didn't buy the battery, so I still need to plug into an electrical outlet to use the printer.

The above devices and services will allow me to compute, communicate and collaborate wherever I happen to be. I'll always have my data available and backed up. There will be new tools and services that people have not yet thought up or even dreamed possible. There might even be a step-change coming in what is meant by the term 'knowledge workers.'

Although the above ideal computing situation is a year or two away from reality, the next year or two will be profitably spent learning how to most effectively use the available web computing tools and what balance of online/offline will be best for me and others I connect with.

*****

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