The Contextual Personal Computer–One Device, Many Contexts

This is a generic post – it’s not about any company’s products and it’s specifically not about the products that are made by the company where I work (in a very lowly capacity I’d like to add – I’m not some grand visionary who makes pronouncements or announcements or any other kind of ‘nouncements Smile).

I’ve had some interesting discussions with people lately around how they use their personal computing devices. Discussions that include words like “mobile”, “phone”, “slate”, “tablet”, “laptop”, “desktop”, “office”, “home”, “native”, “browser” all applied to personal computers and apps on them (and/or smartphones which to me are just small personal computers).

I think those terms are starting to blur around their boundaries or perhaps are starting to lose their meaning altogether when applied to personal computing devices and their apps.

In the past few weeks I’ve had conversations along the lines of;

  • “When you say desktop or mobile what exactly do you mean?”
  • “When you say native do you mean a lump of x86 code in an EXE or DLL or are you talking about an installed app built in any technology?”

I have 4 form factors for the personal computing that I do these days. I think it’s best to categorise them as;

  • fits in my pocket
  • fits in my bag
  • fits in my suitcase or car boot
  • best left on the desk at home or in the office

and when I come to buy these devices I’m thinking about a number of categories;

  • size
  • weight
  • price
  • battery life
  • performance
  • input mechanisms
    • how do I use the device? is it touch? pen? mouse? keyboard? speech?
    • what sensors does the device have? light? GPS? Accelerometer?
    • can the device capture images, video, audio and with what quality?
  • ‘output’ mechanisms
    • does the device have a screen? a speaker?
    • what does the device offer in terms of storage?
  • expansion options – to what extent can I plug things into the device in order to add;
    • new input mechanisms like mice, keyboards, pens, touch devices, sensors.
    • new output mechanisms like additional or bigger screens, speakers, storage.
    • (note that some of this may be done by exploiting some of the capabilities in the next bullet point…)
  • connectivity options – can I connect the device to some or all of the following and does the device understand the differences between them and route traffic sensibly over them?
    • phone networks?
    • WiFi networks?
    • bluetooth networks?
    • wired networks?
    • home networks? work networks? virtual private networks? protected networks where the device is interrogated before it’s allowed to join?
  • software and content ecosystem that the device slots into;
    • does the device run the software that I need it to run and does the mechanism for distribution and update line up with the way in which I’m planning to use that device?
    • what about music, video, books and online content on the web that I might want to use on the device? Can I get to content that I want in a way that makes sense for the usage?
  • how well does the device fit with the other devices that I already own;
    • is using the device essentially the same across smaller/larger form factors?
    • can I get a continuous (presumably enhanced) experience as I go from a smaller device category to a larger one?

If I’m thinking of buying a new personal computing device, I take all of these factors and shuffle them around in my head until I come up with what usage I’m likely to put the device to and, of course, there are then trade-offs that end up getting made before I pick out the device that I want.

Does it have to be this way?

What would the perfect world look like?

In my perfect world I’d probably not have any device at all but, putting chip implants to one side for a moment, if I want to be able to communicate (voice, data, etc) with people when I’m on the move then I’m going to have to carry something around that lets me do just that.

What would the ideal device be then? It would be a pocket-sized-device that;

  • Behaved like a typical ‘smart phone’ today – i.e. offered web browsing, email, music, video, games, along with telephony, SMS, GPS, camera, etc. all driven by a touch-first UI.
  • Had all the performance that I’d get in a modern laptop (e.g. Core i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB storage).
  • Had all the connections that I’d get on a modern laptop (e.g. VGA, HDMI, wired ethernet, USB, e-SATA, keyboard, mouse, etc ).
  • Had at least a 12-hour battery life.
  • Ran all the software that I use on my laptop including desktop applications like office productivity software and developer tools and the blogging client that I’m writing this post with.
  • Can be connected to my TV and other entertainment devices with minimal fuss in order to play games, watch and record TV, watch films etc.

How would I use this device?

The device would alter its behaviour based on the context in which I was using it.

  • If I was walking down the street then I expect the device to give me at-a-glance information from applications that are touch-based or speech-based and offer me a UX I can make use of when the device is 2-3 feet away from my face because I’m holding it in my hand.
  • If I took the device and plugged it in to a huge monitor and keyboard then I’d expect it to be able to let me do work like edit spreadsheets and documents and so on and write some code and offer me a UX that I can make use of when the device is 12 inches away from my face because I’m sitting in front of it.
  • If I took the device home, played some HD video and told it to project it to my big TV in the corner then I’d expect it to do the right thing in that setting too.

That is;

“Same device. Many contexts. Context defines usage”

That’s what I want and I want it from the smallest physical device possible.

Can I have it? No, not really Smile

In one way I can. Taking the specs of a modern pocket-sized-device and going backwards in time to compare it to the specs of a historical desktop-sized-device I’d come to some point (not that long ago) where the modern small device would be more powerful and more connected than the large device taken from history.

It’s always been that way. Innovation starts off with larger componentry and then shrinks in size and power requirements over time.

Who knows whether this is going to change and the drive towards truly personal computing (i.e. computing that can travel with you on a trip to the sofa or a trip to another country) will mean that investment is diverted into mobile-first innovation such that technologies don’t show up until they are already ready for mobile in terms of size, power, heat, etc.

My guess is that won’t happen and I won’t be able to get my dream device in my pocket any time soon.

I suspect that for the foreseeable there’s going to be a range of general purpose personal computing devices for a set of uses. I think it’s likely for the next few years (who knows, maybe 10?) I’m still going to have different devices that;

  • fit in my pocket
  • fit in my bag
  • fit in my suitcase
  • are best left on the desk at home or in the office

and I’m going to have to make a decision to trade-off some aspects around;

  • power
  • performance
  • size
  • price
  • battery life

but I’m hoping that some of my other criteria are going to be less of a trade-off and more of a constant. That is, I’m hoping that all of these devices are going to be able to offer more commonality than difference when it comes to;

  • input mechanisms
  • output mechanisms
  • expansion options
  • connectivity options
  • software and content ecosystem that the device slots into
  • how well a new device that I’m buying fits in with the other devices that I already own;
    • is using the device essentially the same across smaller/larger form factors?
    • can I get a continuous (presumably enhanced) experience as I go from the smaller device category to the larger one?

In order to end up with a true family of devices rather than the dysfunctional set I have today where leaving the house or the office with the wrong device can really spoil your day as in;

  • what? this device can’t run an office productivity suite?
  • what? this device can’t accept a keyboard?
  • what? this device can’t connect to a 3G network?
  • what? this device can’t print?
  • what? this device can’t VPN?
  • what? this device can’t take a photo?
  • what? this device can’t make a cellular phone call?
  • what? this device can’t connect on my corporate network?
  • what? this device can’t connect to a projector?

and so on and we can all think of devices that we have today that meet or fail to meet some or all of those criteria and, again, I’m not picking on any specific hardware or software here and nor am I making any claims for any hardware or software either.

It’s just some generic day dreaming Smile