Perspectives on Mobile Computing

As a self acknowledged gadget freak and lifelong computer engineer, I’ve always been fascinated by the latest and greatest developments in technology. For those same reasons, however, I’ve often been a skeptic of the utility of mobile devices in particular and the spread of mobile computing in general. In almost every instance I’ve been proven wrong, so I view the future of mobile computing with my skeptic’s blinders removed.

Since I first used the Internet 40 years ago, I’ve seen communications technology improve in unimagined ways. Since using punched cards for input and line printers for output, I’ve seen the user interaction models evolve beyond my wildest imagination-and I have a fairly active imagination. Ten years ago or so ago I was involved in some projects looking to put applications on very early versions of smart phones. I was firmly convinced that, even if the screen size grew to match the size of the device, that it would be very difficult to create a user model that would be at all functional-especially as a browser for the Internet. I also doubted that cellular networks and other broadband protocols would ever be sufficiently ubiquitous or fast enough to be practical-although I expected significant evolution in communications. Well, I was clearly wrong in ways that I never imagined. More than most, I do understand the ever popular saying that there is more computing technology in my iPhone than was on board the Apollo moon missions.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting current developments and challenges in mobile computing. First, is the proliferation of ultraportable devices beyond smart phones. I was an early user of tablet computers since I’m not a particularly good typist and I felt that, if handwriting recognition could become adequate, I could be freed from my hunt and peck ways. They were actually quite useful but no more, and in some cases less, portable than other notebook computers. And, handwriting recognition never quite did the trick. The operative word in mobile computing is “mobile”. With the advent of the iPad and its android brethren, tablet devices have become very mobile and more than adequate substitutes for notebook and desktop computers (although I still wish I could type faster-I’m a big fan of voice recognition).

 

Next, the capabilities embedded in these mobile devices, have opened up a whole range of unimagined applications. I no longer have to bring a digital still camera and video camera to capture my children’s sporting events. My phone is more than up to the task. While my cars have GPS capabilities, I often find it easier to simply touch on an address and have my phone automatically locate it on a map and tell me how to get there-even if I’m walking. Augmented reality will allow me to simply point my phone or tablet at a scene and access all kinds of location relevant information. A whole host of business applications are also possible such as real-time delivery tracking. The range of applications in healthcare is too long for a short blog.

This opportunity, however, comes with challenges. As far as we’ve come, new user models will have to be explored. Can we make it easy enough for a physician to switch to writing on a tablet instead of paper records they’re used to? How will, at the moment heterogeneous, communications protocols evolve? Wi-Fi is becoming so ubiquitous, that I rarely find my traditional notebook computer to be without access. Will WiMAX challenge cellular networks? How will firms manage the rapidly blurring distinction between personal and enterprise applications and usage?

Finally, privacy and security become issues in ways we’ve never imagined. How much easier is it to gain unauthorized access to data over today’s variety of wireless networks than it used to be over private wired networks? How do individuals, corporations, and perhaps, most important, government security agencies protect their data? As society becomes more dependent on these technologies we become far more vulnerable. Denial of service attacks, electromagnetic pulses and other sources of deliberate or accidental system wide failures could cause disasters ranging from serious economic distortions to loss of life.

These issues, however, have been with us through every technological transition. New transportation modes (trains, automobiles, airplanes) all brought with them new risks. In each of these cases we’ve believed the good outweighed the bad and we’ve managed to adapt very successfully. I have no doubt, although I won’t be presumptuous enough to predict how, that we will successfully adapt to all of the new risks and opportunities afforded us by developments in mobile computing.