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Mobile evolution

Have you thought of all the ways to free your employees from their desks?

The other day I was thinking of all the ways to say, “The desktop computer is dead.” It’s the fashion in computer industry to pronounce things dead–for effect, of course. The desktop computer has already been pronounced dead several times. The reality is never a matter of absolutes-correction, sometimes, but never absolutes. The desktop computer isn’t dead; it isn’t going to be dead anytime soon; it may never be dead. However, there’s a point here: For the first time the desktop computer is going into a fight with mobile computers, and it’s outnumbered and outgunned.

Just as a small example of what this means, on a recent trip to Europe I was channel surfing on my TV and happened to land on a Russian station. I don’t speak Russian, so as a rule I wouldn’t linger, but there was something that caught my eye. Sitting around a fairly large table in a television studio were two reporters and the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. It was a kind of interview situation, but one like I’ve never seen before. They were all drinking from coffee mugs and looking very relaxed. In front of each person including Putin was a portable computer. The reporters, although obviously deferential, would look seriously at their computer screens and ask something of Putin. Mostly he spoke extemporaneously, but occasionally he’d also refer to something on the computer.

They were reading questions sent by e-mail from the citizens of Russia. Putin and the reporters were reading the same messages, which were delivered by a wireless LAN. (I could see the computers closely enough to identify the wireless cards.)

I don’t know if President Putin wields a portable computer in his daily routine. This was a live–though obviously staged–event, but the choice of portable computers was interesting: not paper, not monitors, but networked portables. And I was thinking, “If these guys were really on the ball, they’d have Tablet PCs!”

But this is another point: How “on the ball” should they be? Should we all be? To what extent have mobile computers become not only a trend but also the right and appropriate thing to use most of the time? This is a question to ask about your business, your office, or your workgroup. Let me explain why.

Mobile computing didn’t march in

Mobile computing has been sneaking up on us. Long ago it began with “portable” computers as big as sewing machines (and twice as heavy). Eventually these became laptop computers, which could be hooked by cables into a network, though this rarely happened. At this stage, mobile computing meant you got a portable only if your work required it. Otherwise it was too clumsy, expensive, and difficult to manage. Portable computers also had lousy screens. They were no competition for the desktop computer, except for the mobility factor.

It took about a decade, but portable computers became lighter and a lot more powerful, almost on par with desktop computers. Portable computer displays got better and bigger, creeping toward 15 inches (diagonal), which at the time was the standard for desktop computers. The resolution wasn’t that good, but not bad for a portable. Connecting to a network became more common, although some kind of klutzy docking station was often involved. Regardless, shifting a portable between home and the office almost always caused a headache for support people.

A few years ago we began to see the first successful handheld computers. Small, calculator-sized computers had been around for a long time, but they were expensive, limited in use, and difficult to synchronize with the mothership (desktop computer), much less a network. The new palm computers (or pocket computers) came in different sizes, were fairly inexpensive (many under $500), had small but usable displays, and could be easily connected to a desktop computer.

I’ve covered this history because it’s easy to forget we didn’t get to where we are today in a short time. We now have portable computers that are very close to desktop computers in specifications, or are extremely mobile, like handheld computers. More important, it’s been a few years since portables had more than enough horsepower for the average user. These days you don’t need to compromise much functionality to go mobile.

The new old

Last year was significant for mobile computing because of the attention given to two “new” computer formats–the Tablet PC and telephone handsets. As has often been pointed out, as a concept neither is new. Pen-based computers were introduced a number of times, spearheaded by the likes of Apple (Newton) and Microsoft (Windows for Pens). Some models are still in use. This time, it’s Microsoft having another go with a larger tablet-style format, better handwriting recognition, and better graphics. I think a fair summary of opinion is that Tablet PCs are an improvement and get better the more you use them, but they’re not perfect. The current debate is largely about whether they’re a niche product or something for the mainstream.

The same could be said for the telephone as a computer. The idea isn’t new, but the widespread availability is. Manufacturers such as Nokia and Motorola are desperately trying to expand their markets by adding screens and Internet functionality to their handsets. The Lilliputian phone screens would seem to be a severe limit, but for many people this may be the only computing they can afford. The computing power also enriches the communication, which is another reason for the popularity.

Wireless sets computing free

Of course, the driving force behind the new telephone handsets is that they are wireless. The freedom to use these phones almost anywhere makes a huge qualitative difference. It now looks like the 802.11 standards and, specifically, Wi-Fi are wireless technologies that will do the same for mobile computers. Like everything else about mobile computing, the technologies aren’t new but they fit a pattern: evolutionary improvement. It’s taken years of trial and error to settle enough of the reliability and security issues. They still aren’t perfect–none of the elements of mobile computing are perfect, especially in the area of security–but they are good enough for most people. My wife is into roaming with a computer–on a couch, at the kitchen table, in a chair, sprawled on the floor. You can’t tell her that staying connected to our home LAN without wires isn’t a measure of freedom.

Information in motion

Portables, sub-portables, Palms and Pocket PCs, handsets for phones, Tablet PCs, and wireless networking: That’s the new lineup for mobile computing. Although some portable computers are sold as desktop replacements and certainly some Tablet PCs will be as well, from my point of view the really significant recent development is the ability to combine various portable options. We now have an ensemble of affordable mobile devices, bound together by wireless communication. The variety of form factors, each of which has been evolving over the past few years into something reasonably useful, provides the opportunity to design an office or a company that is no longer anchored to the desk.

People who need the fastest processors and large monitors (designers, programmers) will probably remain tied to desktop computers. However, from the perspective of mainstream use, the desktop computer is heading for a respectable niche. It won’t be dead, but it is already no longer the center of innovation or the center of computing.

I know thinking mobile will not be easy. Businesses of all sizes have developed computing around the notion of servers and workstations (desktops). Mobile computing has almost always been the proverbial “bag on the side.” Even today, when mobile computing can demonstrate many advantages over desktop computing, using those advantages isn’t always obvious. It’s also true that with the freedom of mobile computing comes complexity and risk. Managing desktop networks is difficult, but managing mobile networks is much harder.

If portable computers and a wireless network can bring advantages to a Russian President, imagine what innovative mobile computing might do for a competitive business. Computing is on the move and will stay that way. It’s time to stop thinking about an “office with computers” and start thinking about “employees moving about with computers.”

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