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Mobile device strategies: The single-device paradox

Carrying around a single device that works as both communicator and computer is the dream of most mobile workers today. This column discusses what's holding us up and how we can minimize our device load right now.

Wouldn't it be nice to carry only one mobile computing and communications device with you everywhere? Unfortunately, such a device remains an abstract, theoretical concept.

I think it is pretty clear that we would all like to travel with only a single mobile (wireless is a given here) computer and communicator. Just the power adapters alone can fill up a computer bag in no time. And there is the expense of owning multiple computers and cell phones, along with the operational complexity of remembering which devices contain which important data, and keeping all of the devices revved up, synchronized and functional.

Of course, if you are a gadget freak, such a state of affairs has got to be nirvana. But for the rest of us, just trying to get our jobs done, simplicity must be the primary objective. A few years ago, I coined the term the single-device imperative to describe this state of affairs. In theory, anyway, we need to reduce our mobile device arsenal to one highly functional unit. But I was trying to make a point here -- that such a state is basically impossible.

So this led to another term, the single-device paradox. Because, while it seems we should be able to build a universal computer/communicator, despite many efforts in that direction over almost 30 years, we have yet to accomplish this goal -- and I sincerely doubt that we ever will. A paradox indeed.

Why? The core challenge involved here is the huge array of competing requirements in building any mobile device. To use a mathematical analogy, we have more variables than equations, which means that no precise solution will be possible -- we have diversity rather than convergence.

Let's start with the big roadblocks -- screen and keyboard size. Bigger is always better when it comes to displays, in terms of both pixel resolution and physical presence -- except when mobility is a factor, of course. A full-size keyboard is a joy to type on, but a desktop keyboard isn't going to fit into a pocket or purse. Of course, there are creative solutions in both cases. Small, high-resolution screens with careful user-interface management applied can work pretty well in PDA-style devices. And the now-common two-thumbs micro keyboards are OK for short messages and emails.

But how about a head-mounted display? Once you get over the geek factor, this could work; see MicroVision for an idea of where this concept might go. Of course, this is one more thing to carry – unless you wear glasses! There is also a virtual keyboard. Virtual Laser Keyboard offers an optical keyboard that actually works pretty well. And foldable Bluetooth keyboards are also a viable option. This modular approach might be an excellent solution, at least minimizing the number of expensive items one needs to carry.

But there are many more potential tradeoffs to consider in mobile devices: size, weight, ruggedness, price, operating system, applications, availability on a particular network, local connectivity options and many, many more. As mentioned before, there are just too many competing variables to allow a single device ever to make any given person happy all of the time.

My personal strategy is to use a small cell phone with limited Web access as my primary, always-available mobile device. I also have a PDA form-factor handset for more Web- and email-intensive activities. I carry a notebook, but often a LINUX-based tablet with a decent Web browser as well. That adds up to four devices, plus their necessary power supplies. OK, I really like this stuff! But I also have a job to do -- and controlling complexity, as I noted above, is the key to productivity. I will continue to be on the lookout for devices that at least minimize the impact of the single-device paradox, and I'll have more on mobile device strategies for you in future columns.

Craig Mathias
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

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