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The rise and rise of mobile devices
Posted: 6 September 2011

All the hype over tablets and hybrid devices, and the latest smartphone wars, gives me cause to reflect on the progress and pace of personal computing technology, as we know it.

Nothing is new for very long, and some of us can recall our first IBM PC, which was a radical departure from the centralized mainframe systems in some unseen basement and the gigantic word processors that we relied on at the time. The PC freed us from the shackles of corporate IT rules, even though they did their best to impose usage policies. Now we could choose which applications to run, which files to delete, what to print, on our own time schedule. We could even turn it off! And soon we had our own PCs at home, totally free of any control.

But PCs were neither mobile, nor connected. Laptops introduced portability, but they are not mobile devices. Connectivity came in the form of plugging in to the corporate LAN, and then modems gave us limited access to the wider world. The possibilities were endless, constrained only by bandwidth.

Who remembers the first mobile devices? PDAs, Palm Pilots and Pocket PCs. It's ironic to think that Compaq, followed by HP, actually had the first iDevice - the iPaq pocket pc which had a touch screen. Apple must have been overjoyed when HP ditched that brand. But the early mobile devices had very little connectivity, and elaborate syncing routines. Except for the Blackberry, which was about the size of a Kindle (only about ten times thicker) with half black-and-white screen, half qwerty thumb pad. All it did was email, but it was one of the first connected mobile devices, and immensely popular.

Windows powered the first Tablet PCs, but they were not mobile devices; too heavy and needed a stylus. You couldn't use them standing up, or behind the wheel of a (stationary) car. I know, I tried. About the same time we had the first colour smartphones, some with keypads, some with touch screens. At last, decent connected mobile devices were available, at a price. The PDA was dead; long live the smartphone!

Apple redefined the connected mobile experience with the iPhone and iPad. The only serious competition is coming from the top Android manufacturers. The demise of the HP Touchpad has confirmed that. Microsoft, Nokia and Blackberry are either treading water or sinking in this new market space. Android's open platform offers developers the opportunity to come up with some really refreshing ideas, like the Grid phone and tablet from FusionGarage. Or the Spider device in this story. Smartphones and tablets have outstripped PCs and laptops. Of course. Netbooks, including the Chromebook, have no future - they're not mobile devices, just connected portable devices.

The colour Kindle will be extremely successful, because it has the Amazon ecosystem to make it so.

So where does it go from here? Cloud power will let us unload more of the heavy lifting to the 'net, and devices will become smaller, more integrated into our bodies, and publicly available. I'm pretty sure we'll see flexipads lying around like magazines in an airport lounge, which will spring to life with your personal 'life web' at the touch of your thumbprint. (No one will steal them, as they go dead if removed, and alert the front desk.)

I personally think we'll always have devices, though they'll be so commonplace, so embedded, that we might as well consider them invisible. Let's look at the time line.

1981: IBM PC launched
1991: Powerful laptops
2001: First smartphones
2011: Demise of the HP Touchpad
2021: Devices become 'invisible'

Spider Combines Laptop, Tablet, Phone, Handheld
6 September 2011
It's an Android-based smartphone with three additional peripherals that transforms it into a laptop, a tablet or a PSP-like gaming device.
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