I spend a lot of time thinking about mobile technology and how it can be leveraged to help me in my life. I am fortunate in that I get to see and try many different devices, computers and tools that might take my productivity and enjoyment to the next level. All of this thinking has led me to the question- what is the Next Big Thing (NBT) in mobile computing? We have reached a point where PDAs are powerful little machines that can do a lot of different tasks that used to be solely in the domain of the personal computer. We are watching mobile phones get more of the capability that PDAs used to provide and we are now seeing entire computers shrunk to fit in the hand (barely). So what is missing from this mobile landscape?
This article does not intend to predict the future of mobile computing nor provide an overview of mobile devices currently available. I may do that at some point in the future but that is not the intent of this writing. I am focusing on what would work best for me since that is my natural point of interest.
I’ll confess I have spent a lot of time thinking about this subject and trying to be honest with myself about what would really take my mobile life to the next level. Long time readers have read my plea for a mini Tablet PC which I know would be a good device for me and one that could make me even more productive than I currently can be with the Sony U750 ultra-portable computer. So would this be the NBT for me? Not quite. We have reached a point in the evolution of mobile technology where I think great things could be done and done right now with existing technology. So for better or worse I’m going to lay out a device that would fit my work style very well and then describe the software tools that would make this device the bomb, to paraphrase my kids.
The hardware side of my NBT
In an earlier article I described the specifications for a mini-Tablet PC that could easily be produced today and run the current version of the Tablet PC operating system. I would still love to see a Tablet PC like this produced and am certain it would fit my lifestyle very well as long as the hardware was up to current expectations. This feeling hasn’t changed and it should be no surprise my dream machine is based on this particular form factor.
Imagine a slate device that is the size of a classic size Franklin Covey binder. The computer would be roughly 6 inches by 9 inches and between .75 – 1 inch thick which would accommodate a screen just slightly smaller than a standard sheet of paper folded in half, or 5 by 8 inches. This screen would be normally viewed in portrait mode and the computer would be made with this in mind. Don’t worry though, a push of a button instantly switches it to landscape when needed, much like today’s Tablets. The active digitizer allows for high resolution work with the pen with full pressure sensitivity.
This dream machine needs to have a couple of mouse buttons and a trackstick so quick sessions on the go can be run without the pen if necessary. The Sony U has an excellent array of controls and this would work quite nicely on the new slate. On two or three sides of this screen would sit very tiny array microphones providing crystal clear noise cancellation and good sound pickup. The microphones will play a big role on this device that will be made clear later.
The slate will have all the normal things you expect in a mobile computer, at least 512 MB of memory, 40+ GB of disk space and a single speaker with sufficient volume to use it without headphones if necessary. Throw in WiFi and Bluetooth and at least one USB port for maximum utility with peripherals since this slate will be designed to allow its use as the only computer you might need, if that’s your intention. One PC Card slot needs to be included so EDGE and EVDO cards can be used for high speed connectivity when no hotspots are available.
The new slate should come with a simple docking cradle to make it easy to use on the desktop with a keyboard, mouse and big monitor. The decent screen size makes it a perfect fit for use in a dual monitor configuration and the integrated Bluetooth makes use with a wireless keyboard and mouse a snap. On the road one could choose a portable desktop like the ThinkOutside keyboard and mouse for maximum mobility. All of these features together make sure the user will have maximum productivity both in the office and out in the real world.
The softer side of the slate
The software side of my NBT is where things get really interesting and where the rubber hits the road. Microsoft Windows has evolved over the years and while it runs well on notebooks and Tablet PCs it just doesn’t go far enough to provide the mobile professional with the ultimate in productivity. What is needed is an operating system that is designed from the ground up to be run on a mobile device like this slate and accommodate the touch screen natively and not just as an add-on feature. The OS needs to work the way users think to be effective.
I mentioned array microphones earlier and my slate needs them to make speech recognition practical. I’m not just talking about dictation like you can do currently on mobile computers like the Tablet PC. I’m talking about an always on, what can I do for you master, speech recognition. Sure, there should be a hardware button to turn this off if desired but the device and the OS should be designed to be always listening to the user. Listening because you should be able to do most anything on this slate by voice. Speech recognition today is powerful enough to handle this if the OS integration is good enough and it’s time to take advantage of that. Natural speech commands are not that difficult- "open My Documents" or "close this window" is not rocket science. If accurate speech recognition is fully integrated into the OS and the array microphones are always "listening" this mobile device will be the most productive ever made. Once the user gets comfortable with voice control of the OS (in addition to the pen) opening folders and files will quickly become second nature. The OS should understand conversational English and interpret them correctly. You should be able to say "what’s my schedule like next Thursday" and get the results instantly. Even more complicated commands such as "find the last bid document" should return the correct file to work with. This is not difficult and well within current technology.
Throw in capability similar to Apple’s Expose and this user interface will really take off. Tiling all open windows on the fly, shrinking them so more windows will fit on the screen at once and you will be able to maximize the use you can get out of the smaller screen of the slate. A simple voice command or pen gesture over a particular window zooms it back up to a workable size. One command to minimize or restore all windows at a whack. The key here is to allow the user to interact with all of the programs likely to be running simultaneously easily and effectively. No more minimize and restoring single windows in a multi-step process.
The slate will be a full Tablet PC so interaction with pen and slate will work just as well as it does in current Tablet PCs so users needn’t worry they will lose functionality. I do believe that with an OS that is optimized for mobile devices such as this slate the user experience will be heightened beyond that currently provided by the Tablet PC. Windows should open and close on verbal command, any window should be zoomable up or down in resolution on the fly (using either voice or pen gestures), Outlook functions should be fully integrated with the file system. Highlighting any file or contact should pop up a mini-mindmap that shows the 10 or so most recent items that pertain to the object highlighted. You highlight a name in your contact list and branches appear with these related objects as links no matter what they are or what program created them. Once the OS is capable of auto-linking items like this work habits will quickly change to make the best use of it. You create a document that "belongs" to a contact you can easily put the contact’s name somewhere in the document file name. Or maybe the company name. You get the picture. Of course you can make manual links between any two or more items but if the OS works the way it should this will not be necessary very often.
The combination of useful speech control and inking on the slate will be very powerful when coupled with the other OS features I have mentioned. The goal is to make a mobile device that is not only comfortable to use but very intuitive. You should be able to make the interface work the way you want and not the other way around. The important thing to realize is this can be done with current technology, at least I believe it can. There is nothing in the general description I’ve given here that is years away. Speech recognition is able to handle all this right now and the hardware is standard stuff, it’s just packaged a little differently and laid out intelligently for mobile use.
Today’s Tablet PCs are great devices and the most productive mobile computers currently available. Few devices allow you to accomplish so much no matter where you are while also stimulating the creative process. My NBT is simply taking the Tablet to the next stage. I am very interested in hearing your thoughts and feedback as this is a platform worth expanding and collaborating to help define this device. It will also be beneficial to open it up for discussion since there are always things you don’t think of or fully realize and multiple points of view are great for advancing ideas and concepts.