Bridging the gap between techie and mainstream consumers

How many of your friends regularly use mobile gadgets at home? I am referring to PDAs, smartphones, notebook computers, and Tablet PCs. One of the things I notice is once you leave the insular world of IT and mobile technology you rarely see “regular” people using these devices. Oh sure, you see notebook computers in a lot of settings now that the sales numbers are approaching those of desktops, but when is the last time you saw your neighbor or family member actually using them? It is easy to believe that the use of such mobile gadgets is taking place in the real world but if you think about it that’s not the case. Outside of cell phones what gadgets do you ever see people using at your kid’s ball game or in their homes?

Those of us directly involved in the mobile technology community realize the benefits that can be gained from using this technology, both at work and at home. We can check our email while waiting for that ball game to begin, or while standing in line at the bank. If we even go into the bank, that is, since we can pretty much do all our banking business online. We tend to hang out with other geeks who also use mobile technology so it’s easy to fall into the false belief that such gadget usage is becoming more mainstream. I will be the first to admit that there are more people using gadgets than ever before but not in numbers that push the technology into the mainstream.

What will it take for OEMs to produce devices that everybody wants to own? I think that is the wrong question. We should be asking “what features will make non-techies want to own a given device”? Talking to a lot of people it is clear to me that most generally like using technology to make their life easier but they also want it to help them enjoy the time they are not working, i. e. when they are at home. Maybe technology that improves the consumption of entertainment in the home would do it. Picture a handheld device that automatically connects to the home area network (HAN) when powered on and becomes a “super remote” for controlling the cable TV, TiVo, and even the Media Center PC if they have one. A device that can control the home security system, function as a telephone handset, get email, surf the web, and perhaps download music. The device could allow owners to text message their kids upstairs, the method of communication that has replaced the intercom of yesterday. I am not advocating such a device, I am just pointing out the functions that are likely to appeal to those regular people I referred to earlier.

Simple functions are often the ones that are most appreciated at home. Take today, for instance. I phoned up the Mom and Pop Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood to order some food for delivery. Before the restaurant even answered the phone their system identified me via Caller ID and pulled up my address along with a list of items I ordered the last time I phoned. As I gave the order taker a list of items I wanted delivered, she tapped the touch screen on their system for each item. As soon as I finished giving my order and she confirmed it with me their system generated a receipt to send with the food and a copy for the kitchen. In less than a minute they were working on my order in the kitchen so delivery could happen in about 20 minutes. Bear in mind I am not calling this mobile technology, I am just demonstrating a type of convenience that every single person who orders from this restaurant appreciates, even if they are not aware it is being deployed. This is the level of convenience that consumers want in their gadgets, too, if sales of mobile devices are to achieve mainstream type numbers.

The Ultra-mobile PCs (UMPCs) that have been in the tech news lately can begin to fill that need for all consumers. All that is needed is to make the interface customizable by the user so they can “create” the device they want. Make it automatically tap into the home network wirelessly, including all entertainment devices that reside there. Let it control the DVR, Slingbox, and audio center. Make it a part of the home and not just a gadget that makes it possible to take work home. Productivity boosting functions are appreciated but remember, most people never crack open a PC at home. They live, not work, at home.

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