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!

Meet the Ultra-Mobile PC

Post ImageThe picture is now pretty clear on what Origami is and isn’t, and what the goals for the project are. Judging from some of the comments out in the blogosphere, lots of people are disappointed after the device was so well-hyped. I guess that was to be expected – the hype was almost at “Apple levels”! I am just disappointed with the battery life, but otherwise, Origami seems pretty cool. First, Engadget explains what Origami is:

Origami is a term originated from [Microsoft’s Otto] Berkes that doesn’t necessarily refer to a device or specific hardware specification, per se, but to an ultramobile PC running Windows Tablet (or Vista, later) and enhanced Microsoft Touch Pack (a suite of apps and utilities meant to optimize using Windows by touch, and not necessarily only by stylus).

Sounds like the official name of the device is “Ultra-Mobile PC” (or UMPC), which now has a website up at Microsoft.com. So what the heck is an Ultra-Mobile PC? Here’s how Microsoft describes it:

The Ultra-Mobile PC is a new kind of computer. It combines the power of Windows XP with mobile-ready technologies that make it easy to access and use your software on the go.

With small, lightweight, carry-everywhere hardware designs, you can connect and communicate, accomplish any task anywhere and at any time, and be entertained and informed wherever life takes you.

Marketing fluff yes, but also helpful in trying to understand the goal. Seems to me that the UMPC is sort of the evolution and merger of the laptop, the tablet pc, and the pocket pc. Actually, I think the UMPC is a replacement for the Pocket PC more than anything. The fact is, I’d much rather have my tablet with me than a pocket computer, because I can do anything on my tablet. The UMPC changes things, giving me a smaller form factor without sacrificing capability.

Basically, I think the UMPC is a great idea. If it had better battery life, ran Windows Vista, and was cheaper, I’d definitely be trying to get one. Hopefully the devices improve over the next year or so. Not everyone thinks the UMPC is a great idea though, like Om Malik:

So finally Microsoft Origami (or what it would be) has been brought to light… and my first reaction, for crying out loud, yet another digital device?

My view on any new digital and mobile device is that – both Microsoft and Intel – should stop thinking Windows and try developing a new platform.

I don’t know, Windows has done pretty darn well as a platform so far! Let’s hope Vista will really deliver in the mobile and power areas to make these devices even better.

If you want to see the device in action, Channel 9 has a 37 minute video with the architect. Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg has a really good early review up too. Oh, and if you were keeping track of the Origami website, week 3 is now up and they have a new community site too.