Mobile future

Pocket PCAfter the dust from this year’s 3GSM fair in Barcelona has settled, it’s perhaps time to reflect on the more long-term issues in mobile computing. Undeniably, we are living in a time of mobile network escalation. More and faster wireless networks are being installed by the day. For example, the island state of Singapore has taken measures to provide free WiFi connectivity to everyone, nation-wide full coverage. And this is only one example. Worldwide, bandwidth is increasing incrementally with mobile networks approaching DSL speeds in a few years.

Applications are starting to shift from traditional voice and text services to a broad spectrum of IP based data services, including email, web, graphics, video and audio transmission. Simultaneously, we see more and more versatile devices being released, from the current explosion of camera phones and smart phones, to high-end PDAs and Pocket PCs. Large companies are spending large sums of money to prepare their attacks on the mobile market. Obviously, it is a very dynamic and promising market. What does it all mean? Where will it all go? What will the market look like in ten years from now?

Obviously, I cannot tell you what the mobile market will look like in 2017, since I am not a fortune teller. I could provide an analysis of emerging technologies and make educated guesses about them. But that is rather boring, probably the sort of article you read every day. So, instead let us use our imagination and picture the mobile future. Actually, let’s make two rational assumptions before we do that, namely (1) that wireless high-speed networks will be ubiquitous in a few years, and (2) that future mobile devices will be as powerful as today’s computers.

Mind you, it’s almost a no-brainer. Today’s PDAs are already as powerful as yesterday’s PCs, and there are countless companies from Microsoft to Motorola working towards phone/computing convergence. But there are of course physical size limitations which will continue to present a challenge. So, traditional computing is unlikely to disappear because of mobile devices, however, mobile device will surely become more intelligent.

In the future, we will have something that I call Personal Mobile Computer (or PMC just to make up another useless acronym), which descends from today’s lines of smart phones and PDAs. You can still make phone calls with it, but these will be VoIP-based calls with integrated voice, IM, and video communication. A typical PMC will have camera, GPS, microphone, antennas, and everything built in that we have now in notebooks, but there will be low-end models as well as ultra-compact wrist-worn models which may lack some of these components. There will also be consumer-style devices with simple interfaces as well as sophisticated high-end devices, so term the PMC will more likely apply to a a whole family of different devices.

Your PMC will offer you a plethora of functionality from portable music, TV, gaming, to personal banking. You will have the option to equip your PMC with a digital identity. If you have a digital ID, then you can use your PMC to pay your groceries, interact with your government, place orders, or just pay for the subway ticket. You will be able to choose which types of applications and vendors/organisations may know your digital ID. You will also be able to choose to disclose your positioning information to certain applications and groups. This will enable a whole range of completely new types of interactions.

Let’s say you are a book collector and you are looking for a certain rare book. Several weeks ago you posted a book query to a GPS query database on the Internet. When you walk through the streets of your town, a local bookshop might pick up nearby PMC signals with book queries, such as yours. The bookshop’s computer will then look up its inventory. If it has the book in store, it will send you an instant message: “Hello, we are RareBooks Inc., which is 2 blocks away from you, and we got the Shakespeare Folio Edition you have been looking for!”

Once at the book store, you receive a phone call from a customer. It is a call that was automatically forwarded to you from the office. Your PMC has previously informed your office’s call routing system that you are currently outside. Your PMC has also decided your availability based on caller group privileges and current privacy mode. While you are talking to your customer, a terminal session to your office computer is automatically established in the background. The terminal connection allows you to use your office computer from your PMC, and just in case the customer asks for the latest delivery schedule, you can send it with a few taps on your touch sensitive screen, which now shows the contents of your office desktop.

Having purchased a nice antiquarian volume and made a customer happy, you are finally heading home by train. On the train, although you planned to read the newspapers on your PMC or watch the train’s free video offerings, you cannot fight the temptation to use the public WiFi in a less productive way. You log into the portal of OtherWorld, the latest multi-player virtual reality game, and while the train is racing through urban landscapes, your PMC takes you on a journey of a different kind. In OtherWorld you are controlling a medieval kingdom which you must defend against invaders. The invaders, as well as your allies and trade partners in OtherWorld, are of course other players with PMCs who interact in realtime.

Unfortunately, your PMC displays an alert before you have a chance to immerse yourself into OtherWorld. It informs you that a member of your local parenting community group is near you. This is part of the GPS-based friends-locator software that can -monitor the geographical distance between your PMC and that of friends and relatives. This type of software is used by all kinds of communities from dating websites to reader circles and sport clubs. You decide to interrupt your gaming session and call your friend who is probably on the same train. It turns out that she is in another compartment, so you decide to establish a video chat over the local network to discuss next week’s parents meeting.

Once you get off the train, you walk through the subscriber’s clearance gate. In a matter of seconds, the short-distance radio signal of the gate connects to your PMC, retrieves your ID and credit status and charges your subscriber account for the cost of the train ride. Since this has become daily routine, you don’t even notice the acoustic confirmation signal any more. And so another mobile computing in the future day draws to a close.