As I have said (and written) repeatedly, the future of computing is both highly mobile and highly connected. This is pretty obvious, and I make no claims to the title of industry seer. This week, however, I've come to the conclusion that my prediction is already half realized: Computing today is already highly mobile. The highly connected bit is going to prove to be the tricky bit.
Let's discuss both. Every time I travel, I look around at the computing devices used by my fellow passengers, whether it's in an airport or train station, or on a conveyance of some kind. I'll walk up and down the aisles of a plane and spy, basically, watching what it is that people do to pass the time. And what they use to do it.
Years ago, it was Solitaire or Mine Sweeper (or, curiously, Excel) on Windows laptops. I recall one time being interrupted during a game of Quake (running on Windows NT, by the way), by a passenger who wanted to know if it was "virtual reality." (I wasn't sure how to answer that question.) Portable DVD players were huge for a long time too.
Things have changed. Today, I see lots of Mac laptops in addition to Windows-based PCs when I travel, something I previously only witnessed in press rooms at trade shows. And on my two most recent, post-Christmas trips, there were iPads everywhere. In fact, here's a statistic to consider: On a recent flight to Denver, every single person in my row had a non-PC tablet device of some kind, and all but one of them were iPads. (The other was a Samsung Galaxy Tab.)
And that doesn't take into account smartphones or other connected devices such as iPod touches and the like. These days, everywhere I go, people are hunched over tiny screens, interacting with others in a private little world.
The beauty of smartphones (the real appeal, I think) is the constant connectivity. In fact, if you want to see a smartphone user go ballistic, simply observe them in a low- or no-connectivity zone. It's at these times when the frailty of our entire device relationship is laid bare. It's an affront, an unwanted, painful interruption.
But the future of computing requires two slightly different pieces. I mentioned before that the mobility end had been met, already. And it has, not just by these iPads and other connected devices, but also this year, for the first time, by regular PCs. Sure, we've had netbooks that can attain 8 to 10 hours of battery life for a few years now, but netbooks are toys. What we've needed to really break the tether are notebook computers—real computers—that can make this leap as well.
They're here. Thanks to a combination of efficient new Intel chipsets and optimized Windows 7 installs, the first truly mobile PCs are hitting the market as you read this. Later this week, I'm told, Apple will introduce a new lineup of MacBook Pro computers that should easily exceed the 8 to 10 hours of battery life of the current lineup. But it's not just Macs. Lenovo this week announced a new ThinkPad T-series lineup (T420, T520, T420S) that achieves up to 15 hours of battery life with standard batteries. Add an optional battery slice, and that jumps to a whopping 30 hours of battery life.
30 hours. Think about that for a moment.
Mobility, check. But what about connectivity?
3G cellular data connections are a start, but we're going to look back on this era and laugh, as we now do when we ruefully recall the pinging sound of a modem connecting at 28.8 Kbps. 4G is a step in the right direction too. But where these technologies fall short is availability. As I referenced above, there are far too many spots where cellular data doesn't work well or doesn't work at all, and that's just in the United States. Wi-Fi is fairly ubiquitous but is often an on-the-spot paid option, with each hot spot offering up its own set of rules, logon interfaces, and payment types. It's a mess.
Even if it wasn't a mess, we need more seamless ways to jump between available network types. This is the type of thing users today spend a lot of time manually managing, but for this future to be fully realized, this is something we must never need to think about.
Bandwidth is also an issue. I've been in hotels where the in-house Wi-Fi wasn't even strong enough to download an iTunes movie rental overnight—I'm looking at you, Marriot Fort Collins—but I'm currently in a Novotel in Madrid, Spain where the Wi-Fi is as good as what I have at home. Point being, your mileage may vary. But when it comes to Quality of Service, that is absolutely unacceptable.
And let's not get too far into the pricing situation, since it's just depressing. Over the air bandwidth is expensive, prohibitively so in some countries. And if you travel a lot, picking the right solution and not getting charged into the poorhouse is more art than science these days. I needed to break out a slide rule to figure out how much international data I'd need for this week in Spain. I'm sure I got it wrong and I literally just got a shiver thinking about my next bill from AT&T.
So getting the entire world seamlessly connected is going to take some time. Heck, it might not even be possible. But it's the dream. Today, it seems impossible, but then 15 to 30 hours of battery life in a high-end PC laptop would have seemed like crazy talk just a few months ago. It will happen in baby steps, but each improvement will bring us closer to that computing future that I think about, the one that until recently seemed unobtainable.
I call it Nerdvana.