Tuesday, February 27, 2007

After the Desktop – What?

For decades the desktop PC has been the public face of computing to most folk. It has delivered a dazzling array of applications to us, but at a cost – it has tied us down to desks. Unless you are chained to your desk by your job, this can be pretty inconvenient. The workforce is becoming increasingly mobile, courtesy of the Internet which connects most places, and the mobile phone. Desktop PCs are anything but mobile.

The IT industry responded to mobility needs with the laptop, which was a big improvement over the desktop, but even so there are lots of places we go where laptops aren't convenient. Think of a ball game, bar, bicycle, or bathroom. So industry built palm tops or PDAs. Small enough to fit in a pocket or purse, and with enough smarts to handle many of our common computer needs – email, calendaring, address books, some calculation. But communication was a problem, until PDAs started incorporating mobile phones. Now mobile phones have returned the compliment, and incorporate the functions previously found in PDAs. The relentless miniaturization of electronics has enabled manufacturers to cram more and more function into mobile phones. They now offer fairly good web browsers, email, organizers, instant messaging, plus built-in cameras, videos, sound recording, music downloads and playing, and a few TV channels. Growing amounts of local storage allow users to take their favourite images and music with them.

Mobile phones are small and light enough to take with you almost any place with little inconvenience. They have a huge advantage over desktops, laptops, and the classic PDA – they have communication built in. You don't have to find land lines, modems, LANS, or cyber cafés to access the web. Almost anywhere you go, your mobile can connect. These factors are going to make mobiles the most widespread, heavily used human-computer interface.

Mobiles will replace the desktop.

"But wait, this cannot be!", I hear you say. "The mobile's screen and keyboard are too dinky, and its pointing device is too clunky! It cannot compete with the convenience of a big screen and keyboard."

Suppose you could have the best of both worlds. That when you're on the road, you could carry most of the files that you're currently working on in your mobile; that if you really need to access them and you don't have a big screen handy, you could still do so, slowly; but when you do get to your office, or your home, or to a cyber café, you could access the files and application on your mobile through a big screen and keyboard, with a proper pointing device. It wouldn't be that hard to do. When laptops first came out, they were challenged for storage space, modems, and other conveniences that were standard on desktops, so manufactures built docking stations for laptops. The laptops were as small and light as possible, the docking stations were bigger and heavier, but they held the extra goodies that couldn't fit into early laptops. Since then, shrinking electronics have enabled manufacturers to put pretty much everything we need into the compact form of the laptop.

So what would a docking station for a mobile phone look like, ideally?
  • It must have a fair-sized screen and keyboard, and a good pointing device
  • It must talk to the mobile wirelessly, like Bluetooth but much faster, and encrypted
  • It should be interchangeable:
    • any mobile should talk to any docking station
    • any docking station should allow access to any application on any mobile
Of all the requirements, interoperability is the most important – otherwise we'll all end up dragging our own docking stations behind us on airport trolleys, which would defeat the purpose. But how can one docking station talk to any application on any mobile? Surely that can't be done, it would require us to develop a universal terminal, which is clearly impossible – no, wait, we've done that already – it's called the browser.

So the mobile phone of the future will incorporate a small web server! No big deal, most modern electronic appliances like network switches already do so. The mobile user will be able to walk up to any available docking station and click a menu item on his or her mobile phone. It will connect securely via local radio to the (nearest) docking station(s). A prompt will appear on the docking station screen, the mobile user will type in credentials to authorise access, and the job will be done. The user can then interact with applications on his or her phone through a big screen and keyboard, and a proper pointing device. Apart from the applications that we have on our mobiles today, we would also get many of the applications that we need PCs to access today, such as word processing, spreadsheets, and other office automation software. Google Apps has already shown us that it's possible to deliver pretty good office automation apps through a vanilla web browser. And the response times would be great, we would be on a local wireless link.

Mobile users would be able to access files on their phones, update them, and save them plus new ones. These would be the files that they are currently working with. They could keep their other files on file servers that their phones could access securely through the Internet. Docking stations may offer fast broadband Internet connections, but if they didn't, the mobile phone would revert to its own network operator.

So where could we hope to find docking stations of this type in the future?
  • On desks at home, and in offices for those folk who are tied to offices
  • In cyber cafés, hotel lobbies and rooms, and airport lounges
  • In kiosks on street corners
  • In aircraft and buses, in the back of the seat in front of you
  • In cars
What software will the docking stations be running? They will be pretty simple appliances, and everything that they need to do can be done today with open source solutions like Linux and Firefox. If some manufacturers want to compete in this market space with software they pay for, that's their funeral. And what software will the mobile phones be running? That's up to the manufacturers. There will probably be a diversity for some time to come, but free open source options now exist that provide most of the function required by a mobile phone, and it's hard to beat free. Most of the new development on mobile phones is adding applications rather than re-inventing how phone calls are made. It's getting increasingly more difficult for manufacturers who use proprietary operating systems on their mobiles to source or develop all of the applications that are already available free in the open source space. Their problem will only get bigger as time goes by.

Once we have access to most of the PC applications that we use today in this convenient format, the need for most desktop and laptops PCs will fall away. No doubt there will still be power users who will need fairly powerful computers, lots of storage, and big screens, and who find it most convenient to get this in the shape of a desktop PC, but they will become the exception rather than the rule.

I would suggest that the open source community should stop obsessing with the battle for the desktop, and start focusing on the battle for the platform that will replace it. As I have said before, the day will soon come when the notion of having to go to a particular machine on a particular room every time you need access to information or computer power will be as obsolete as the notion of having to go to the hand pump over the well in the front yard every time you need water.