Mobile Tech: Smaller, Cheaper, Better (Pick Two)

Mobile technology has come far. But has it come far enough to meet our increased demands for powerful, personal technology?

The System, by Rosscott

It's no surprise that desktop sales have been dropping over the past few years. Computer users are more mobile now, especially with nearly ubiquitous internet access. Laptops have become more powerful, providing a decent replacement for the desktop computer. In the corporate office, add an external monitor, keyboard and mouse and you usually can't tell the difference in terms of performance. There are also gaming-oriented laptops with powerful graphics chipsets.

With the downturn in the economy, however, people turned their attention towards lower-end laptops and netbooks. These days, the majority of portable computers are $500 or less. Even so, purchases of laptops themselves have been decreasing.

The Apple iPad, while not an original concept, was still a game changer. Previous attempts at slate-type computers had failed. Microsoft's Origami project, resulting in a short spate of Ultra-Mobile PC production, didn't last. They were underpowered, and too small for what they were trying to accomplish: run a full Windows operating system in a 6" slate computer.

For more information on tablet history, see my previous articles:

Tablets: Past, Present and Future Part I

Tablets: Past, Present and Future Part II

The new generation of slate computers, beginning with the iPad, have completely reorganized the landscape of mobile computing. Millions of iPads have been sold, and have greatly eaten into the market typically taken up by ultraportable laptop/netbook sales. People bought netbooks because they needed to do light computing on the road: email, surfing the web, maybe watch some videos.

But now you don't need a netbook for that anymore. Now you can do these things on a slate computer like an iPad, or wait a bit longer for an Android-based device like the Samsung Galaxy Tab. You can play games on these devices, too. Heck, you can even get a decent smartphone these days to do that as well, although sometimes the small screen makes some of these tasks a bit difficult.

The prevalence of mobile computing devices has eaten into the laptop market, much in the same way the laptop market ate into the desktop market. However, any transition like this is going to result in reduced capability and productivity from the technology being replaced.

Let's use the iPad for example. Yes, you can use it for email. You can surf the web. You can read books. You can play games. But can you do complex spreadsheet work on it? Can you play World of Warcraft? Can you write and compile software on it? Of course not. But if you're like me, you will try to push the envelope of what a device is capable of doing. Once you hit the upper limit of what the capabilities are you come away disappointed.

Keep in mind, this is not necessarily a failing of the devices themselves; our expectations tend to be higher than what the manufacturers intended for them. The manufacturers, of course, will hype their products to make it seem like they will make your life better, more productive, make you a cooler person. The reality is that they are, for the most part, utilitarian devices that let you do a portion of your normal computing needs while away from your computer. They are not meant to replace your computer.

Some might ask why the manufacturers are dragging their feet on bringing out mobile tech that is capable of becoming a desktop/laptop replacement. The truth is, they are and they aren't.

On one hand, there are processors capable of powering a mobile device that can run a full-blown operating system like Windows or Linux. And while there are newer CPUs capable of ultra low voltage consumption that generate less heat and draw less power, they still aren't really viable in a slate computer format. Just look at any netbook with the CPU usage cranked up to 100%--the battery life is diminished, the heat generated is uncomfortable, and the noise from the cooling fans is annoying.

Current slates and smartphones use very low-power CPUs that generate almost no heat. They typically max out at 1GHz in clock speed, and are able to run for many hours on tiny batteries. The new RIM Playbook has a dual core 1GHz mobile device CPU.

While it may not be able to run Photoshop, a dual-core CPU in a handheld tablet device is definitely a step in the right direction. Considering the battery life on such a device, it is not all that unfeasible to expect a quad-core device of similar specs able to run a full operating system while still keeping heat and battery drain down.

Advances in technology take time. Getting the processing power up while keeping heat and power draw down are the biggest obstacles in creating more powerful consumer devices. Until we reach that sweet spot of the mobile device that simply plugs into a docking station at work and home and is our primary computing device, we need to accept the stop-gap alternatives available to us.

Later this year, Lenovo is releasing the U1 Laptop. It's a laptop that runs a full OS, where the screen detaches and becomes a standalone slate. It's a unique approach, but I don't see it as having a long shelf life due to continually advancing technology.

Personally, I think the ideal device for mobile computing will be modular. A core portable device like a slate that has wireless access to your data in the cloud, or on a home server. You would plug this slate into a docking station that had better network connectivity, AC power, more memory, storage, extra processing power. We're not there yet, of course. But we're getting closer all the time.