I was intrigued by comments yesterday over in the Palm world, with Jeff Hawkins (come on, keep up at the back, if you don't know who Jeff is then your knowledge of mobile computing is sadly lacking...) hinting at a 'secret' program of Palm's, producing something for the next generation, when high-speed always-on Internet is a given. The idea presumably is that the Internet (and your own chosen servers/RSS feeds/portals/whatever) becomes the centre of your mobile computing experience. For example, why carry around static reference databases when you can look things up on the master system online? Why struggle to type/scribble a long email when you can make a call or leave a voice mail in a fraction of the time? Why copy over documents and then convert/work on them and then send them back (risking damage) when you can edit the originals directly? Why mess around with map databases on expansion card when you can access bang-up-to-date maps, route planning and traffic information online? Why keep your PIM information totally to yourself when you could be working with PIM data online, with selected colleagues and family given access to the bits they need?
And so on. Of course, the economics of today's GPRS and EDGE connectivity (and even 3G) don't quite match up to this mobile nirvana, and quite appropriately. Coverage across the whole of the UK isn't perfect (let alone the rest of the world), and it's a huge letdown when you find yourself needing to send an email, make a call or get navigation information, only to see no signal bars on your network display.
As a result, today's cutting edge mobile devices represent something of a 50:50 compromise, mixing local applications and Internet-reliant functionality. There's still some way to go.
This trend towards working online shouldn't really have caught anyone by surprise. It's certainly what Symbian had in mind at its creation. Look back 10 years to the era of the all conquering Psions and fledgling Palms. There was no concept of connectivity, the information on your palmtop was all there was until you next got back to your PC and managed to copy things over, and local text entry was crucial.
Fast forward to the current day and the role of a modern device has changed out of all recognition, adding email, instant messaging, web, music playback and photography. Not to mention gaming, telephony and video playback. Absolute text entry represents a much smaller fraction of the workload than it used to. As an experiment, I've been using a Nokia 6630 instead of my trademark 9500. And, apart from writing this piece (for which I cheated slightly by using a Bluetooth keyboard), I've found that I've actually been able to do more with the smaller device. My photos have been miles clearer, the sync with Outlook on the PC has been better (support for Notes, yay!), email checks have been quicker and I've had an awful lot of fun playing some seriously addictive Series 60 games (shhhh.....)
As the mobile world shifts away from solitary uber-geeks (like me, I admit it) tapping away on palmtop keyboards, to averagely technical professionals using their smartphone to interface with their networks, their friends and the world in general, I think Jeff Hawkins is on the right track. Not that Palm are the only ones thinking along these lines – Nokia and Microsoft (to name but two) will be right along for the ride too.
When 3G data services are more or less universal and costs are down to a sensible level (say £15 a month in the UK), the prospect of keeping your data, your sources and your life online will start to make sense. Not that you'll do all this through whatever web browser is installed on your device. A true smartphone of the future will feature intelligent applications, integrating the Internet with local data seamlessly and efficiently. Others will be able to see what you're up to (with your permission, of course), access your images and video, share common data, compete with you in cutting edge games, wherever you are in the world.
There will have to be some technological improvements to match the new telephony, of course. Longer battery life (or, better, recharging by magnetic induction, solar power or simple movement) and faster processors spring to mind. But, as I've noticed with the way the Series 60 world has come together in the last 12 months, technology often comes good at the right time.
Those familiar with the Symbian OS world will recognise a lot of the concepts I've just mentioned. The activities currently enjoyed by leading edge adopters, fairly expensively and with a not inconsiderable amount of fiddling around, will in a year or two be mainstream, inexpensive and an awful lot easier. And that's good news for all of us who plan to be around to enjoy this next generation of mobile computing.
Steve Litchfield, 3-Lib