Phone Torched

I mentioned in a recent update post, that I had recently gotten a new cell phone, which given who I am and how I interact with technology means that I've been thinking about things like the shifting role of cell phones in the world, the way we actually use mobile technology, the ways that the technology has failed to live up to our expectations, and of course some thoughts on the current state of the "smart-phone" market. Of course.

I think even two years ago quasi-general purpose mobile computers (e.g. smart phones) were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. The rising tide of the iPhone has, I think without a doubt, raised the boat of general smart phone adoption. Which is to say that the technology reached a point where these kinds of devices--computers--are of enough use to most people that widespread adoption makes sense. We've reached a tipping point, and the iPhone was there at the right moment and has become the primary exemplar of this moment.

That's probably neither here nor there.

With more and more people connected in an independent and mobile way to cyberspace, via either simple phones, (which more clearly matches Gibson's original intentions for the term,) or via smart phones I think we might begin to think about the cultural impact of having so many people so connected. Cellphone numbers become not just convenient, but in many ways complete markers of identity and person-hood. Texting in most situations overtakes phone calls as the may way people interact with each other in cyberspace, so even where phone calls may be irrelevant SMS has become the unified instant messaging platform.

As you start to add things like data to the equation, I think the potential impact is huge. I spent a couple weeks with my primary personal Internet connection active through my phone, and while it wasn't ideal, the truth is that it didn't fail too much. SSH on Blackberries isn't ideal, particularly if you need a lot from your console sessions, but it's passable. That jump from "I really can't cut this on my phone," to "almost passable" is probably the hugest jump of all. The series of successive jumps over the next few years will be easier.

Lest you think I'm all sunshine and optimism, I think there are some definite short comings with contemporary cell phone technology. In brief:

  • There are things I'd like to be able to do with my phone that I really can't do effectively, notably seamlessly sync files and notes between my phone and my desktop computer/server. There aren't even really passable note taking applications.
  • There are a class of really fundamental computer functionality that could theoretically work on the phone, but don't because the software doesn't exist or is of particularly poor quality. I'm thinking of SSH, of note taking, but also of things like non-Gmail Jabber/XMPP functionality.
  • Some functionality which really ought to be more mature than it is (e.g. music playing) is still really awkward on phones, and better suited to dedicated devices (e.g. iPods) or to regular computers.

The central feature in all of these complaints is software related, and more an issue of software design, and an ability to really design for this kind of form factor. There are some limitations: undesirable input methods, small displays, limited bandwidth, unreliable connectivity, and so forth. And while some may improve (e.g. connectivity, display size) it is also true that we need to get better at designing applications and useful functionality in this context.

My answer to the problem of designing applications for the mobile context will seem familiar if you know me.

I'd argue that we need applications that are less dependent upon a connection and have a great ability to cache content locally. I think the Kindle is a great example of this kind of design. The Kindle is very much dependent upon having a data connection, but if the device falls offline for a few moments, in most cases no functionality is lost. Sure you can do really awesome things if you assume that everyone has a really fat pipe going to their phone, but that's not realistic, and the less you depend on a connection the better the user experience is.

Secondly, give users as much control over the display, rendering and interaction model that their software/data uses. This, if implemented very consistently (difficult, admittedly,) means that users can have global control over their experience, and users won't be confused by different interaction models between applications.

Although the future is already here, I think it's also fair to say that it'll be really quite interesting to see what happens next. I'd like a chance to think a bit about the place of open source on mobile devices and also the interaction between the kind of software that we see on mobile devices and what's happening in the so-called "cloud computing" world. In the mean time...

Outward and Upward!

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