There's a holy grail of mobile computing out there. It's a pocket-size device, or maybe a bit smaller, that's a computer, cell phone, e-mail client, Web browser, MP3 player, digital camera (still and movie), and maybe more, depending upon what you want. It will run all day (or longer) on a single charge, and it's lightweight and won't break if you drop it on the sidewalk. It's the only device you need to carry, and it costs less than $100.
OK, there's no such thing. But I (and probably you) would buy one in a minute if there were.
I have been working on mobile devices for a very long time. My adventure started as part of the engineering management team that designed and built the GRiD Systems Compass Computer, the first notebook. It weighed 11 pounds, had a magnesium-alloy case, an Intel 8086 processor, 256K of RAM, 384K of bubble memory (non-volatile storage that was the forerunner of flash memory), and could connect via a 1200 bps modem to a network of servers called GRiD Central, analogous to the Internet of today. Convergence a la 1982 -- at least as far as computers were concerned.
Technology has since progressed to the point where it seems we should be able to build the ideal device I sketched above, but, alas, don't hold your breath waiting for it. There's something I call the "single-device paradox" at work here. In a nutshell, there are simply too many conflicting requirements to allow a single device that will appeal to everyone to be built. Consider just a PDA-like device -- we want the screen to be as big as possible, but the device should be as small as possible. And just look at the plethora of notebook computers available today -- from huge models with 17-inch screens to mainstream notebooks to ultraportables to pocket-sized, like the OQO.
But maybe we should in fact be working toward eliminating the mobile PC altogether and moving toward the smartphone as the core mobile IT device. A smartphone is a combination of a PDA and a cell phone. I use a Palm Treo 650 and in general I'm happy with it. But I use it only as a thin client -- nothing is ever stored on my Treo. I am convinced that the thin-client model, based on wireless Web services, will ultimately prevail. All we need is ubiquitous wireless connectivity (which I think will be provisioned via a convergence of public-access, metro-scale wireless LANs and 3G/3.5G cellular systems), and we can reduce the client device to a wireless browser, with perhaps just a bit of local data caching and offline processing. Imagine giving a presentation by using the wireless LAN in your phone to communicate with a projector connected to the Internet, telling the projector where to get the presentation, and then using your phone as a remote control while speaking. And there's never a need to worry about forgetting a file or not having the latest and greatest with you.
I'll have much more to say on this topic in the future. But for now, let me tease you with a truly radical idea – the mobile computer of the future may be a wireless thin client you literally borrow or rent. Just plug in your hardware token and enter your password (two-factor authentication will become the norm), connect to your PC or server wherever they happen to be, and do whatever you need. Drop off that computer and borrow another later. Believe it or not, I'm already working this way part of the time. I'll tell you how I do it in a future column.
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at email@example.com.