Rise of the Machines

Mobile PhoneWith the mobile phone’s takeover PDAs, electronic organisers and more behind us, could the PC be next? Drew Turney wonders how futuristic the idea really is…

We have very different relationships with the two screens that dominate our work lives, but the mobile phone and PC are fundamentally the same under the hood – both with a processor, memory chip, input and display interfaces and applications.

Advances in mobile component technology are coming at the breakneck pace usually reserved for PCs, so could the ever-smarter smartphone supplant the PC as the business tool of choice one day? If so, when?

The device promised by the dotcom age, which we’d use for everything from watching TV, reading books and making phone calls to browsing the web, working and playing games is now a cliché, both technology vendors and consumers now realising we want different experiences from different tools.

But that’s not to say convergence isn’t happening. Where once you’d have to carry around a paper diary, cassette Walkman, camera and change for a phone box, now a single device does all that and much more. So in prophesising whether the mobile phone will ever replace the PC, it really boils down to one question; what can a computer do that a phone can’t?

As it turns out, not much – we just prefer doing some things on a PC. You don’t see many Australians surfing the web on their phones, but in Korea or Japan, where the mobile is far deeper embedded culturally and prices are realistic, you’ll see a very different picture. We saw how many functions the phone has taken from other devices, and it’s borrowed more from the PC than we realise.

Artificial Intelligence

Not only is there no real distinction between phone and PC components, in some cases the mobile does it better. Solid state memory (found in mobiles and USB flash cards) is enjoying wider application than ever and some see a future where its robustness and affordability outstrips the traditional, platter-based PC hard disk.

Then there’s the infrastructure of data connectivity. Compared to PC wireless standards, mobile networks are more mature and further reaching, ready to reach critical market mass in Australia as soon as pricing structures get simpler.

Cities from San Francisco to Singapore are proving grounds for high-speed, high coverage mobile data networks that serve the needs of everyone from business to YouTubers, with access faster than the cabled speeds across much of Australia. The recent release of the all-wireless MacBook Air is a good example of a device that will be next to useless to most Australian consumers because of lacklustre infrastructure.

Meanwhile, standard PC wireless devices limp by on standards fought over by international authorities and as long as we rely on underground copper wires a century old we’ll stay shackled to studies and offices around the country.

Taking Care of Business

If you have a current model smartphone, it’ll already contain most of the tools you have on your PC. At least one vendor has made their name synonymous a traditionally PC-based task easy on mobile (Blackberry).

The popular mobile operating systems all have a variation on the standard PC office, web browsing and email tools, and as more features and applications come into the fold, it’ll in turn attract more as the yardstick handheld device. If the quality of the camera in your phone surpasses anything a standalone digital camera can offer, might we one day see Adobe Photoshop for mobile, letting you touch images up and send them straight for proofing?

But it’s not just about transplanting PC applications onto your phone. Image search technology – still in its nascent stage –promises another revolution. If you like the look of a restaurant, just send a mobile photo across the web and before long you’ll receive the menu, reviews and more. It’s not science fiction, either. The technology that reads text within images can be found in any pro-level optical character recognition (OCR) application of today.

Voice-activated computing is similarly advanced. Software like Dragon Naturally Speaking allows you to control your whole PC experience through speaking. The possibilities are intriguing, and we’ll talk more about unshackling ourselves from the keyboard later.

Above all else, we seem to have a natural drive to converge the myriad workplace tools we wrangle every day, but only according to one simple criteria – whether it makes life easier. “We want to have different experiences in different places,” says Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s user experience group, a trained anthropologist putting her background in human behaviour to use for the chip vendor. “Convergence only makes sense when the experiences are nicely aligned.”

When it comes to the fully mobile workforce, some also believe working on the go should have a time and place rather than become standard. “From a resourcing perspective mobile computing implies a distributed workforce,” says Miles Burke, director of the web development powerhouse Bam Creative, “and many industries can’t do that because they need a high level of interaction amongst team members or the tools or systems require them to be at a particular location.”

The Missing Link

So all the technology exists to free us from offices, desks and heavy, power-hungry machines and move to a device that weighs as much as your wallet and we still don’t do it. Why? Ask ten people and you’ll get the same refrain from most of them; I can barely write an SMS on that tiny keyboard, let alone an email or sales report.

The mobile was designed with the form factor of a phone, not a computer. The most common measure to use it as a PC has been to replicate the experience through a keyboard, such as the virtual keyboards that project onto a flat surface or foldaway USB keypads. But adding a keyboard is just turning the phone into a smaller PC and, in turn, locking you to a desk or table, not by any means a mobile experience.

When we’re sitting with our hands on a keyboard and eyes front at a monitor, we’re in a different frame of mind than when we whip a mobile out of our pocket to look at the screen. Might the two remain distinct not because of technology or form factor but because of our tendency to zone ourselves into either ‘work’ or ‘communicate’ mode when we begin a task?

We might differentiate between those zones consciously, prepared for the much more technical demands experience a PC requires of us. John Wang, chief marketing officer of Taiwanese mobile vendor HTC, is mindful of not making phones like PCs. “I think we’re going to see a trend,” Wang says, “We’re starting to focus not on increasing the number of features, but applying technology to simplify the experience when using these features.”

As the manufacturer for many brand name mobile device vendors, HTC is on the pulse when it comes to usability in phones, and Wang wouldn’t like to see them become like PCs. “We all have friends or relatives who say ‘my phone has all these features but I only use two or three’,” he says. “We should take that statement seriously.”

“Part of why we love mobile is that they do certain things really well and we don’t need to know how it happens or troubleshoot it,” Intel’s Genevieve Bell adds. “When was the last time you rebooted your cell phone or TV? [The mobile and computer] are different cognitive acts. There was a lot of talk about trying to make TV more interactive once but I think part of what people like about TV is it’s not very demanding, it just happens.”

The Revolution Might Not Be Televised

If we let go of the desktop PC and all its trappings like the keyboard and mouse, we’d also have to revert in large part to the way humans began communicating; using spoken words and images. Using voice recognition technologies, might we draft everything from emails to grandma to amendments to centuries-old national constitution by speaking?

And isn’t there an incentive to speak rather than write everything down (even if it’s going to end up as editable text). Despite our rich history of written communication, the transformation of language from bureaucratic jargon to plain English (or Spanish, Inuit or Mandarin) will be profound. Even more so if transmission of data is done via image, as the growing image-based search technologies are bringing to the mobile experience?

“Written text’s has a precision images don’t,” Genevieve Bell reminds us. “It allows for a density of thought and information. There’s still something about the durability of written communications. There’s a reason we still send greeting cards or why love notes mean more than just Speaking. There are certain things we want to interact with tactically, like the written word.”

We Are the Future

Moving mass computing to a small, mobile device is technologically possible right now – the only thing holding it up is us. It’s easy to be seduced by the rate of change in technology, but we have to remember people change a lot slower than machines. Our needs and desires are little different now than 100 million years ago, and the only tools that catch on are the ones that further those interests.

With both mobiles and PCs getting better, smaller, faster and more powerful, there’ll be more convergence and cross-platform tasking in our lives. So while the ultimate, super-converged device has a future, we have a lot to change first – in ourselves.

Sidebar – Digital Wallet

A new area for many Westerners, the notion of your phone as a digital wallet is nothing new in many Asian markets.

It’s a simple system in principle – a piece of software in your phone keeps track of your bank account balance, and when you make a purchase, you use your phone to send a signal to the instore unit and your account is debited.

Popular in high volume sales channels like public transport, the only downside is the huge task of convincing retailers to come on board. With no interest in it without considerable user numbers, it’s a classic chicken and egg situation.

Japanese telecomms giant DoCoMo has successfully rolled out a digital wallet service called Osaifu-Ketai, which is part of its i-mode packet transmission technology.

If the name ‘i-mode’ sounds familiar, that’s because Telstra licensed the system for sale in Australia (along with the UK’s O2). Both dumped it in mid 2007, blaming low subscription numbers and lack of vendor support, proof that the mobile means many things to many people in different cultures and a further hurdle to adopt a true PC-like model.