Parsing Mobility

Old news from the buzzword-bingo front: “Cloud” is giving way to “Mobility” as the word to work into every presentation.

To many people, “mobile computing” means a small device interacting with a massively interconnected set of cloud-based databases and computational engines. From that perspective, mobile computing isn’t an emerging technology in its own right, but rather a window into a maturing one, and so not very interesting technologically.

Delve deeper, and “mobile computing” becomes very interesting — not as a technology, but rather as an aggregation of several technologies whose evolutionary paths overlap in a particularly fertile way. Understanding the emergence of mobile technology thus requires parsing it into its components — and the same goes for guessing about the future.

In no particular order, what follow are the technologies I think underlie the current transformation of our lives through mobile computing, and how they’re likely to evolve. Please add to and/or comment on the list!

  • Pervasive, transparent wireless. What we need, and what’s likely to emerge, is a combination of technology and business practices that enable people simply to stop thinking about how their devices are connected. Right now connectivity might be by 802.11 WiFi, and the WiFi might use any of several authentication and security technologies, or it might be cellular, where how you connect depends on which carrier your device likes, or it might be one of the emerging non-cellular, non-WiFi technologies like WiMax. The key technology that has yet to emerge is a mechanism for reconciling and federating the diverse identities people already use to get wireless access.
  • Federated identity and attribution. I have somewhere north of 20 email addresses, plus almost as many phone numbers, some bank accounts, a wallet full of credit cards, and several membership IDs. Eventually there needs to be some way to communicate the relevant dimensions of these identity icons from mobile devices into the cloud or vice versa — and to do so without communicating the irrelevant dimensions or exposing us to identity thieves. Moreover, the sources that identify me may be different from the sources that identify others, and these different sources need some kind of interlinking trust chain. Without these kinds of federated, limited, focused mechanisms for sharing attributes, it will remain awkward to integrate mobile devices into the commercial fabric.
  • Haptic interfaces. The touch screen is rapidly complementing and in many cases supplanting the keyboard and pointing device on small devices, and it is beginning to do so on larger ones (eg, iPad, Kindle, etc). Touch isn’t the only haptic technology that’s emerging rapidly, though — there are also three-dimensional technologies like the field sensors used in Wii controllers. We’re going to see rapid progress here.
  • Solid-state storage. It’s interesting to remember that the original iPod actually had a spinning hard drive in it — that would be unthinkable in a small device today, where flash memory reigns supreme, and it’s becoming unthinkable in light laptops (eg, the small Dells like mine, and the new MacBook Air), and we’ll see that progression continue.
  • Low-power processors. Without these and the next item, devices really aren’t “mobile”; rather, they’re temporarily detachable. Getting processors to consume less energy and put off less heat is critical to both run time and miniaturization. We’ll see immense progress here, I think, and that will gradually erase the difference between the flexibility of “portable computers” and the long run-times of “mobile devices”.
  • Power. Mobile computing would be infeasible without compact lithium-ion batteries, but they’re only one step along a continuum that eventually yields some combination of wireless energy supplies (presumably solar, but some based on body heat and kinetics might re-emerge — if you’re as old as me, you’ll remember so-called “self-winding” watches, whose springs were wound by a delicately balanced internal swing arm that spun around as we walked). New battery types or capabilities are also possibilities.
  • Displays. We’re still pretty much confined to displays that require some kind of rigid (or rigidly supported) surface, be it a liquid-crystal mechanism of some kind (many laptop displays, plus Kindles and other “electronic ink” devices) or some kind of charged-glass mechanism (such as iPhones and iPads, also some laptops and plasma screens). Cheap little projectors are another technology that’s playing in this space, but they only work in the dark, and then not very well. Eventually someone is going to figure out how to produce displays that are flexible, even rollable or foldable, while still being capable of detailed rendering and some kind of haptic input.
  • Encryption. As outsiders seek access to individual data and communications and individuals become worried about that, we’ll see demand for simple yet secure encryption mechanisms. The problem is how to balance simplicity of use, security level, and recoverability. It’s easy to develop encryption that’s easy to use, but often that makes it less secure and/or makes it hard to recover data if one forgets one’s password. Solving either of the latter problems typically reduces simplicity, and so on around the circle.
  • Sensors. Many mobile devices already have some kind of location sensor (GPS or cell-tower triangulation), often accompanied by a compass and an accelerometer. Pressure sensors, thermometers, magnetic-field detectors, bar-code readers, weather-radio receivers, speech parsers, fingerprint readers, and other sensors are also becoming common — and some of them, like Shazam, are quite astonishing. Gradually our mobile devices will need less and less information from us.

The point is, the emergence of mobile technology isn’t unidimensional — it’s not Dick Tracy’s wrist radio becoming a wrist TV. Rather, it comprises the simultaneous emergence and confluence of several otherwise distinct technologies.

It’s inevitable that both the emergence and the confluence will continue in ways we can scarcely imagine. This yet another example of the maxim we always need to remember: everything, even technological progress, is connected to everything else!

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