Into 2013: The year of the 'Carry-Along'

We've all become dependent on connectivity and computation, turning us into tablet- and smartphone-toting cyborgs. How will this trend evolve in 2013?

Following on from Mary's initial look at this year's set of predictions from industry analyst Mark Anderson, it's worth drilling into some in more detail.

Mark's first prediction, that 'Carry-Along' devices will dominate global computer markets isn't a difficult one to call. You only have to sit on a tube train in London to see the tablets (mainly iPad, with a smattering of Nexus 7's and a handful of Surfaces) as people while away their commuting hours. Glance over a few shoulders and you'll see it's not all Angry Birds; instead they're using devices for school work and for PDF documents and spreadsheets, and, well, just about anything we do with desktop computers.

We've all become dependent on connectivity and computation, turning us into tablet- and smartphone-toting cyborgs. Our carry-along devices have become prosthetics for memory, and enhancements to cognition. If you don't know just who hit the run or pitched the out that won the 1966 World Series, or scored the winning goal in the 1973 FA Cup, you don't need to go to a library to get the answer — it's going to be in Wikipedia, or at the very least a quick search away. You don't need to remember phone numbers or email addresses, or write things in a diary — and with tools like Google Now or Live Tiles you can see what's happening around you with just a glance at a screen.

The first carry-along devices were netbooks, taking a low-cost leaf from the One Laptop Per Child project's XO-PC. That's changed over the last few years, with the keyboard all but disappearing in favour of the tablet form factor. Although tablet PCs and slates had been around since the 1990s (along with PDAs and handheld PCs), it was the arrival of the low-cost netbook that popularised the form factor. A light device that did most of what you needed to do at a fraction of the price couldn't fail to be successful — until something lighter and more convenient came along.

Not just for consumption

Tablets are often seen — and marketed — as consumption devices, but there's a lot they (and their smaller smartphone siblings) can do. You may not be able to create a massive Excel spreadsheet, but you can check results; you can't write the Great American Novel, but you can proof read and comment on a document. Instead of sitting in a tube carriage reading a copy of a free newspaper we can be using carry-along devices to be productive. It's not surprising that businesses are finding that workers are using devices to respond to mail and review documents outside of traditional business hours — and with larger-screen devices they're handling more complex tasks quicker.

Tablets are often seen — and marketed — as consumption devices, but there's a lot they can do

The ability to take computation wherever we go is significantly changing the role of the IT department. Not only do they need to manage bring-your-own-device (BYOD) schemes, they now need to implement more complex information management and security procedures — as well as rolling out applications and services that are suited to both new form factors and new ways of working.

That's the flip-side of Mark's prediction: the fundamental changes that result from a shift in device form factor popularity. It's no coincidence that Microsoft's WinRT development model used for Windows Store applications and its own Surface tablet is focused on delivering smart, asynchronous applications that work in conjunction with cloud services — with APIs that simplify using authenticated connections to ensure end-to-end information security.

If you're writing business system code you'll need to consider the new endpoints you're going to have to service, and the tools and approaches you'll need to deliver services to those devices. Will you be working with smart clients, or will you take the HTML5 way out and trust the browser? It's a complex dilemma, and one that's going to significantly affect the way you deliver business solutions.

Smaller, higher-resolution screens are going to have an influence here too. Different approaches to sub-pixel rendering allow for clearer text (with Microsoft using its ClearType rendering, and Apple using clusters of pixels on its Retina displays), making it easier to use carry-along devices for reading documents and editing content, anywhere, anytime. Apple's iPad Mini and Google's Nexus 7 have shown that 7-inch and 8-inch displays are acceptable to end users, and if the rumours are to be believed, a refresh of Windows 8 and a next generation of Surface devices are going to support 7in. screens too.

Then there's the other end of the scale. Who's to say that an ultra-lightweight device like a MacBook Air or an Intel-powered ultrabook isn't just another form of carry-along device? They're small, light, and easy to just pick up and take with you, just in-case you might need them...

With his Carry-Along prediction, Mark Anderson has made a very safe bet. We're at another inflexion point in the world of personal computers, one where small and light doesn't mean weak and inflexible. Today's carry-alongs, tablet and ultrabook alike, are powerful, full-featured computing devices — devices that are tailored to the way we work, and the way we live. Computing shouldn't be tethered to a power cord, and the carry-along is just another step in its evolution.


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