Monday, October 8, 2012

How Many Mobile Devices will you carry?

In the future, how many mobile or portable devices will you carry with you?

I contend the answer is simple:  Two, one in your pocket and one in your bag.  There will continue to be a natural convergence to these two formats.  Each new device that comes out will migrate to one or the other of these basic devices. The smaller format (think smart phone) will literally fit in your shirt pocket.  The larger format will be the size of a book, roughly 8.5 inches by 11 inches.  I call that basic device the laptop although it may be a tablet or some hybrid between the two.  All new portable devices that appear will eventually converge to one or both of these formats.

Go back a few years.  Many of us were carrying a cell phone, a Personal Digital Assistant or PDA (I had a series of Palm Pilot devices) and a laptop.  Then I converged the PDA with the phone, purchasing a Palm Treo.  At that time I also had an iPod.  Although the Palm Treo could play music, it wasn’t as good as the iPod (and did not support iTunes).  Now I’ve replaced the Treo with an iPhone.  Guess what?  Don’t need the iPod any more.  (See later discussion on why I recently bought a new iPod.) 

I did a lot of internet surfing with the Treo, but I stuck mostly to special sites designed for mobile phone use.  For most internet access, I used the laptop.  With the iPhone it can still be tough to use some web sites (like Wikipedia — I know, there’s an app for that), but, in general, I can browse most sites adequately with my iPhone.

Then along came the eReaders.  I never bought one of those.  I found the iPhone with an eReader app (Kindle or B&N) works fine for me for ultra portability. For those that want a bigger screen, then obviously the laptop or tablet computer is a better choice as both an eReader and everything else.  Currently the dedicated eReaders have some advantages of size and portability over laptops, but that advantage is disappearing fast with the advent of tablet computers.

So what about the laptop?  Well, it is still my primary computing device.  At work I plug my laptop (a high end IBM ThinkPad) into a docking station and connect with my display, keyboard and mouse.  When I’m off to a meeting or taking a trip, I unplug the laptop, and I’m off.  The recently popular netbooks are really not a lot more than just a cheap laptop.  They don’t have any better internet access, although some can be bundled with a phone plan to give cell phone internet access, in reality, you can do that with any laptop.  So not only is the laptop the second portable device, it can even replace the fixed device call “the PC.”

So what I see happening is each new device or function that comes along eventually melds with either a phone or a laptop (or both).  Now Apple comes out with the iPad.  Which is it, a phone or a laptop?  It does have the operating system from the iPhone and the cell phone connection, but it won’t fit in your pocket, and — at least now — you can’t make a phone call.  Based on its size, it must be the device for the bag.  Clearly the iPad (or other tablet computers) will go the direction of the laptop.  I don’t see them as two different devices, but just a personal choice.  Some will choose the tablet format and the iPad, while others will desire the physical keyboard and go with the laptop.

(An interesting variation is the new laptop from “One Laptop per Child.”  It folds open like a laptop, but it has two screens, one for viewing and the other as a virtual keyboard.  Or you can open it up like a magazine and read both sides.  Also, the screens are protected when the device is closed.  So, is it a laptop or a tablet?)

As I mentioned earlier, this analysis is not complete.  Why would I buy a new iPod, if my iPhone can handle music just as well?  The answer is battery life.  I can certainly listen to music all day on my iPhone, but I prefer to preserve the battery power for phone and internet use, so I have a dedicated iPod.  Same logic for the DVD and other portable media players.  I can play DVDs on my laptop, but I prefer to preserve my laptop battery life for doing Office and Internet. 

So the final convergence will really depend on battery life.  Given 20 hour battery life of an iPhone, and I would never buy an iPod again.  Similarly, if my laptop gave 20 hours of life on one charge, I would use it for media player, eBook reader, and all other uses where the larger screen is an advantage.

The future as I predict it is we will converge on two information appliances.  One will fit in our pocket and the other will be roughly the size of a book.  Both will have a complete set of applications, cell phone connectivity, lots of storage, and very long battery life.  The final choice will be like “paper” or “plastic.”  No, make that “paper” and “plastic” and all function will converge onto these two devices.

Since this convergence will be complete, the laptop (or tablet) of the future will be cell phone connected and just as useful for making phone calls as the smaller device.  And the only limit on the smaller device will be the small screen.  So, in the future, we will all carry two devices.  A super portable device in our pocket that looks a lot like today’s cell phone, and a larger device in a bag that looks a lot like today’s laptop or tablet computer.


A little different analysis regarding cameras because good cameras require good lenses and good lenses are large.  But even that is converging as we witness the latest DSLR cameras can also do video camera duties.  So I predict the serious photographers of the world will continue to carry a third device called a “camera,” even though cameras are already converged with both the big and small portable devices.

Another device I left out of the previous analysis and predictions is the GPS navigation tool.  Truthfully, I use GPS based navigation almost exclusively for driving, so I prefer the dedicated GPS built into my car.  Lacking a built in GPS in my car, I would purchase a TomTom or Gavin.  Since my iPhone gives me GPS for walking around and locating objects, I have no need for a vocal driving instructions GPS in my pocket.  I don’t think the GPS navigation system will converge with either of the other two devices, but remain separate.  Call these the “exceptions that makes the rule.”

Originally written Feb. 22, 2010. I think I published this before, maybe on Facebook, because I recall Jacob Lincoln commented on it.

Update: I have retired from IBM since writing this. Although I still have the IBM Thinkpad, I've migrated to a MacBook Air. It is just slightly smaller and a lot lighter, but still fits the classical "laptop" description. I also got an iPad, and liked it so well that I recently bought a new, third generation iPad to get the faster processor, more memory, and higher res screen. The iPad is now my favorite eReader.

Last Christmas I bought two of the Amazon eReaders — a B&W Kindle and a color Fire. I later gave the Fire to my granddaughter but still have the Kindle in case I want to read a book on the sunny beach. The Kindle hardware has crazy battery life, you hardly ever charge it at all, and it is more large pocket book size rather than 8.5" x 11". I really just bought these because I could ... they are only one or two hundred dollars and are doing well in the market due to this low price. I just like trying out these gadgets. :-)

New dedicated eReaders are being released all the time, but they are following the prediction in this article as they add web access, email, and all the other functions common in laptops and tablets. Tablets tend to have more function still including cameras and even new phone capabilities such as Skype or Facetime, but those things will be added to the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other "dedicated" eReaders too, I'm sure. I still think we'll all end up carrying two mobile devices ... one small like an iPhone and one larger, like a laptop or tablet ... about the size of a book.

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