Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rise of Smarter Smartphone: Mobility, Geo-Presence and Social Networking

A lot of people have spilled a lot of digital ink over the past decade on the convergence of PDAs, mobile phones, and (to a lesser extent) computers. Over the past two years, I’ve watched a lot of the predictions from a decade ago finally coming true – and talked about future trends with other I.T. pros as well as non-techies. This article is an attempt to frame where it seems the convergence is headed, why it’s going to happen a lot sooner (and be a lot bigger) than many writers seem to acknowledge, and what some of the drivers are. In a nutshell, the evolution of content over the past millennium coupled with the rapid progress in hardware and basic human nature will lead to very widespread adoption of mobile communications devices (which I’m calling “MCDs” for this article) which will supplant the PC as the primary way we use the internet, plus allow most people to participate in scenarios that are just now becoming possible to a few tech elite.

The evolution of content:smaller, faster, cheaper

Gutenberg’s invention of the mechanical printing press in the 15th century kicked off real progress in the creation, distribution and consumption of content.Instead of scrolls written by hand, information could be mass-produced, making it faster and cheaper.The next 500 years saw the machines that did the printing get smaller, faster and cheaper as well.Modern postal systems allowed for a massive increase in regional newspapers, which combined printing presses with mail’s (relatively) fast and reliable delivery.You can probably see where this is going. Fast-forward to the late 20th century.

The first “killer app” of the internet was (and for a lot of people, remains) email.Email has nearly killed off the handwritten letter, now affectionately referred to as “snail mail”, for personal and business correspondence both.IM and sms is supplanting email among a lot of younger people.The latency (time between sending and receipt of a message) has been decreasing, and the format has been moving towards shorter messages.When you can send a message, get a reply, and reply back to that all in a day or less, you don’t need to pack as much into each message.

  • Person to Person Communication – written personal communication has moved from paper to email already for most people in the developed world.New technologies continue to supplement it; by 2000, instant-messenger software was commonplace, and made real-time chat usable by the masses; it has even less latency than email, and even shorter messages. IM, along with short-message-service on mobile phones (SMS) are essentially the same thing, on different platforms.
  • One to Many Communication – (aka publishing) has followed a similar arc: We’ve gone from books and magazines to radio and TV, to e-Zines (anybody remember those?) which gave rise to blogs, to RSS feeds, twitter and your Facebook status.Just as snail-mail still exists, so do radio and TV – but even those are going digital and being podcasted, streamed, and viewed on mobile devices.

As the tech for publishing has gone down in cost to effectively nothing, there’s been a real shift from the one-to-many “broadcast” model of publishing, to a “many to many” paradigm.One hundred years ago, you could fit every writer of a book and a regular newspaper column on Earth into Giant’s Stadium.With some tens of millions of people now writing regular blogs, you’d have trouble fitting them in a mid-sized state. Some content companies have shifted from producing, to acting as aggregators and “trusted filterers” of content, which is essentially a whole new business model.

Proliferation of Mobile Communications Devices (MCDs)

Hardware makers started really segmenting consumer-oriented computers in the mid-1990s, about 15 years after the IBM PC kicked off the ‘revolution’. As sales of desktop PCs were passed by notebooks in the U.S. and Japan a few years ago, they started aggressively segmenting the mobile market into “desktop replacement”, “thin and light” and “ultra-portable” categories.In the past year, with Asus’s bringing out their Eee-PC (and about a dozen iterations of it), we’ve now got the “netbook” segment.Then there’s the red-headed step-child of notebooks, the tablet.

Whatever HP, Dell, Apple, and the rest call their segments, the notebook market is settling into performance machines that are the workhorses for developers and video-content editors, thinner and lighter full-fledged notebooks for business workers, and netbooks for casual web-surfing or writing.

That is set to change: touchscreen functionality is being built into the next-generation of display technology, and will rapidly start showing up in netbooks – there won’t be a really separate category for tablets; the hardware and software for it will be ubiquitous. And if netbooks have enough computing power today for a large slice of the population, then smartphones will have enough in a few more years.

The biggest problem with using a MCD that has a smartphone form-factor (something small enough to take with you everywhere) is that the display is too small. This problem is a lot like that faced by people who want a lightweight notebook for travel, but want a big screen when they’re home or in the office.A lot of those people use docking stations, or just plug their notebook into a big screen – that’s what I do too.As smartphones and netbooks “converge” into MCDs, somewhere around the size of an iPhone, the same thing will happen:people who use the MCD as their main computing device will pop it in a docking station, and use a keyboard and a large screen at home. When they go out, they pop their “phone” in their pocket and use an interface that’s designed for the smaller screen.

Google has really shown a preview of this, with mobile versions of their email, news, and search sites that show up if you’re using a mobile gadget – particularly the iPhone or the HTC’s G1 (based on Google’s Android OS).

In 2008, my smartphone has a 528 MHz processor, 4 GB of built-in flash memory, a 640 x 480 display, and both 3G and WiFi radios, along with basic GPS.My 2012 MCD is going to have a multi-core 1 GHz or better processor, 64 or maybe 128 GB of storage, an 800 x 480 (or better) OLED display on-board, with video-out through a docking that supports much higher resolutions.It’ll probably have 4G broadband of some variety (I’m guessing LTE), and the GPS will be integrated into many applications instead of being ‘stand alone’.The hardware won’t be the problem – getting the operating system really polished for both mobile use and desktop use will.Apple has a jump on this by using the same basic kernel (Mac OS X) for both their iPhone, Macbooks and desktop computers.

And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve heard about cloud computing.One of the founders of Sun Microsystems just left to focus on a startup involved with it.And as ever more of our content and raw computing power is hosted off in a datacenter somewhere, more of our applications will look like Google Docs, or Salesforce.com’s eponymous offerings, but with mobile and “large screen” versions.One big driver will be very fast wireless broadband, and distributed datacenters (to reduce latency).Both Google and Microsoft are investing heavily here, though Amazon has a big fat cloud of their own for rent.

So the next-generation mobile OS’es will need to handle multiple UI paradigms, be able to retrieve and store data in “the cloud”, and integrate location data with any application that has a use for it, while boasting enough horsepower to play full HD video streamed over the net.

Social Networking – Us, but online

Humans are social creatures – which is why websites like Facebook have exploded in growth.Users are (usually) extending their real-life social networks onto the web, where they can share photos, update their status so their friends know where and when they are, and reconnect. Whether Facebook survives in its present form, I have no idea, but in 2012 your friends will know where you are (if you want them to) because your MCD will update your location and “presence” (in a meeting, sleeping, etc) for you.So when you go to call someone (or IM them, or throw a sheep at them, whatever) you’ll know if they’re too busy to talk, sleeping, or ordering pizza.Or more importantly – if they’re nearby, and want a coffee, so you can walk over and meet up. Motorola is already designing an intentionally “social” smartphone based on Android.

While Facebook seems big now (it’s closing in on 100 million users, the last I checked), keep in mind that there are 300 million people in America, and 450 million in the EU, and a few billion in Asia.Most of these people don’t have much (or any) experience with computers, and don’t have a lot of legacy content.For them, the main point of contact with the internet is already their mobile phones.So the growth potential for social networking sites is huge, and for tens of millions of new users, their MCD/smartphone will be the natural tool to access those sites.

So – as Moore’s law relentlessly marches on, broadband speeds make cloud-computing indistinguishable from “local” computing, and with the drive to connect to access all of our information from anywhere, at any time, we have the perfect recipe for the ubiquity of mobile communication devices. Our notebooks aren’t going to just “complement” our smartphones, like Palm’s failed Folio; MCDs are going to be the computer for hundreds of millions of internet users.As we walk around the physical world, our MCDs (somebody will think of a better word) will know where we are, where we want to go (and offer directions), when we’re sleeping and don’t want to be bothered, where the nearest Starbucks is, or the nearest bar, and which of our friends is already there.

So if your website or application isn’t easily usable by mobile devices now, start making plans for it. There are going to be new giant companies born of this, just like the internet birthed Google and Facebook.