Portable computers (by )

I like the iPad hardware; shame about the crippled iOS software. Similarly, I like the Kindle hardware - shame about the restrictive DRM system.

But the biggest shame is that I'm actually tempted to own three or more different computing devices, purely because of different situational specialisations in the hardware. A smartphone (or, more ideally, a wearable computer) for real-time pervasive tasks. A tablet device for portably viewng stuff on (whether it's ideally electronic ink or a nice colour LCD really depends on what I'm viewing) . A laptop for actually working on... ideally a small one for portability and a larger one for power (both in terms of CPU+RAM and in terms of more screen real estate). Plus remote servers that store a significant part of my data since it needs to be available to others in some way (this blog, my email, etc).

But this sucks - there's a lot of duplication of hardware (mass storage and CPU power) there, when I'll only really be using one device at a time. And there's an annoying duplication of data that needs to be "synched" between things. And an annoying variation of user interface, as different devices often have very different models of storage management.

Here's what I'd love to have:

In my pocket sits a smartphone. It might have a Blackberry-style keyboard or an iPhone-style touchscreen, depending on taste. It has a small computer to run its apps, and a battery, and the usual Bluetooth/USB/GSM/etc interfaces. And it has a wodge of Flash to store my stuff.

Maybe it has enough Flash to store all my stuff. Maybe it doesn't in which case, I might also carry a featureless cuboid that contains batteries and a lot of flash, or even a hard disk, or some combination of the two. In which case, my phone is slaved to it - using its own internal flash to cache resources fetched from the storage box, and accessing it via Bluetooth or some more advanced personal-area radio network; but when it's plugged into the storage box via USB, it can access it more speedily, and suckle power from the larger battery.

Perhaps I'm lucky enough to also possess a head-up display (which also functions as a headset for audio), and/or a chord keyer, that talk to the smartphone via radio or wired links. They're just extra I/O devices that plug into it, though.

But maybe I own a tablet computer, or an electronic paper device. They might have their own internal storage, but I'd slave them to my phone, or direct to my storage box (slaving to the phone, if the phone is slaved to the storage box, just slaves them to the storage box, in effect), and use their local flash as a cache. Also, if I don't like their file-browsing interfaces, I can just use the phone to select a file and "send" it to any willing device reachable through the slaving relationships, which causes it to access the file (from the original source) and open it up. The file isn't actually "sent", it just seems that way (except faster, and with a single central copy if I start editing it).

But what of the laptop? Or my big, powerful, desktop machine? Let them be slaved to my phone or my storage box, too. Take my home directory and installed apps from my central storage. Then there's no synching of address books and all that. There might be files in my phone that only laptop-scale software can manage, which I then can't open on the go, but I can at least use my portable devices to email a copy to a colleague who needs one, and to open simpler types of files that happen to be associated with the same project. They can talk to my storage box via a wireless link within range, or I can hook my storage box, phone, etc. up to it via cables for high-speed communications and power distribution.

What will it take to do this? Some cleverness to negotiate which device should give which power when they're joined by a cable (easy if one of them has access to mains power, trickier to decide if they're both battery devices; perhaps the default should be to not share power at all unless asked to by the user or unless the battery of one device is flat, turning it into a non-self-powered device). But it's mainly down to standardising file systems and protocols. Working at the "USB mass storage device" level is a bad idea, as only one device can have such a filesystem mounted. It needs to be more like NFS. And, mainly, devices and desktop OSes need to let go of managing their own filesystem and learn to use a shared standard for home directory layout - which will NEVER happen for legacy systems, but at least they can mount your mobile data store as "My Documents" or something like that, and perhaps make some effort to invisibly sync between their own personal-information databases and whatever's in there.

There'll still be some need for syncing - my email and blog, and shared work stuff like Git repos and group calendars, have to be on servers somewhere. And there's a good reason to mirror my portable storage to somewhere else whenever I can, as a backup. But the less syncing, the better!

1 Comment

  • By Gavan, Thu 2nd Sep 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    That more advanced personal area network thing sounds like an ideal application for UWB.

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