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3 June 2008

Mobile computing - are we there yet?

By Andrew Clifford

Mobile computing has become an everyday reality. But we have further to go.

The best test of technology adoption is when you can buy it cheaply on the high street. By this standard, mobile computing is just coming of age.

Mobile computing technology is not new. What is new, though, are the commercial deals that make it cost effective. Up until recently, mobile computing has been prohibitively expensive for everyday use (here in the UK, data rates have been in the region of one pound per megabyte). Recently, however, mobile broadband access has dropped to around the same price as wired broadband connections.

I recently bought a Nokia 6120 from Three to use as a modem for my laptop. The connection is faster and cheaper than the wired broadband to my home. The internet access on the phone itself is OK, though limited by the small size of the screen.

I have been impressed by the service, but I do have some criticisms.

  • Pricing isn't as plain and simple as it could be. I had a lot of fun asking customer services what the difference is between their "mobile broadband" and "mobile internet" offers. I am constantly reminded of Scott Adams' (of Dilbert fame) description of phone companies as a "confusopoly" - maintaining their position by confusing their customers.
  • On the phone itself, the Internet is not as open as it should be. The internet applications - email, Skype, MSN Messenger - are more restricted than their PC counterparts. It has taken me some time to break out of the walled garden of "specially selected content" that my provider imagines I might be interested in.

Ignoring these bugbears, I think there is one more big leap that we need to make with mobile computing. Adding a phone to your PC, and running a mixture of mobile and full-fat software, adds to the complexity of your environment and to your dependency on specific devices. It makes it harder to switch between one machine and another, and harder to recover your environment after a failure.

The big leap I want to make is to combine mobile computing with portable applications. I want the convenience of internet anywhere. But I also want to carry all my data and all my applications with me and use them on whatever device I want.

I want to be able to use my applications and data on the phone when I am out and about, and to expand them to run them on a full size screen and keyboard when I stop. I want to run a full variety of applications of my choice, not just a selected few stripped down version for a phone. I want to be able to backup and recreate my environment easily. I don't want a phone that synchronises with my PC; I want a truly portable environment that runs on my phone and on my PC.

Mobile computing has become a financially and technologically viable alternative to fixed-wire connections. We are there or thereabouts with mobile PC connections. But I want more. I want the freedom and convenience of portable applications as well. We aren't there yet.

Next: That's what I call reuse

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