Thoughts on pocket computing

Post ImageDickson and I had a discussion a couple weeks ago where I argued that mobile devices like Pocket PC’s, Palms, and BlackBerry’s would either disappear altogether or be forced to live with very niche market segments (ruggedized Pocket PC’s on oil fields, BlackBerry’s for rich executives, etc). Dickson didn’t completely agree with me, but I knew I wasn’t the only one. David Heinemeier recently gave up his smart phone:

I simply don’t have enough situations available where I need the power of a computer in the palm of my hand.

And so did Jason Fried:

I convinced myself I needed a smartphone when I really didn’t. What I really needed was Less Phone. A phone that made calls, picked up a strong signal, supported simple text messaging, and offered a dead simple calendar.

Smart phones are just one example of the kind of devices I think will go quietly into the night, and there are many more. Devices like the UMPC will probably exist for quite a while, if only because they are fully featured computing devices.

Let me first tell you why I think these devices will go away:

  • They are too complicated! Can anyone use a Pocket PC? I would argue you no. Can anyone use an iPod? It would be hard to argue against it.
  • Battery life sucks. (Though I agree this will get better, and that it doesn’t affect all devices, like the BlackBerry).
  • They are redundant. Why create pocket versions of all the applications we have on normal computers? Doesn’t it make more sense to simply use the normal versions? More on this in a second.
  • The screens are too small. You can read email, see the currently playing song, look up a phone number, and lots of other things. But can you do any real work on them? Can you write a document? Watch a presentation? Play a video game? There are so many things that the small screens just are not suited for. And when laptops have auxillary displays (coming with Vista) the need for a small device to quickly access calendar and contact information disappears.
  • They take up space. Why carry around a little pocket device when you already carry your cell phone, for example?

Most of my criticisms of these mobile devices are based on what I think is coming. So what do I think that is?

Computing surfaces will be everywhere, and you’ll carry your computer on a little memory stick or even just on your cell phone. Set the phone down on a table, and it turns into a full sized screen that you can use interact with your computer. Or you can use a kiosk that has been setup at the airport or hotel or wherever you are – it will read the memory stick or communicate with your phone. As soon as you sit down in your car, it can communicate with your phone so you can look up addresses or phone numbers using the in car computer. Your data is with you everywhere you go, Internet connection or not.

Obviously, the infrastructure we need for this kind of thing doesn’t exist yet, but it’s coming. Some of these technologies have already been demonstrated too, like the cell phone on the table thing. And that last point is particularly important. Conventional wisdom suggests that Google or Microsoft or someone will host all of our data online, so that we can access it anywhere. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Privacy is the biggest reason. And when the scenario I have described becomes possible, why would you store all your data online, except as a backup? You wouldn’t.

What do you think? Do you think pocket computing is going away? Do you think the vision I described above will become a reality? Just imagine what would be possible!

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on pocket computing

  1. Check out the medical scene…every person has a PDA…why? Because it’s a hell of a lot better than carrying around all those books… 🙂

    Personally, I quite like my pocket pc…i write emails on it, can record voice messages, listen to mp3’s. I agree though that I don’t use it any other time unless I’m at work where I really need it.

  2. UMPC is great for:
    Living room/kitchen machine
    Training PC (For software I’m involved in)
    On-the-road salesperson
    Younger students
    Stack of machines for meeting rooms

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