We still live in a mobile world

Posted by Kevin Anderson on November 26, 2013

We live in a mobile world. Let’s face it, we’ve always lived in a mobile world. From as far back as when the only work was hunting and gathering, humans have always gone where the food/work is. Only as the work has changed, has the way in which we’ve chosen to make use of available technology also changed. There was a brief hiatus where we traipsed down the road from cottage to mill, mine or factory, but that once-traditional idea of the workplace and workforce has gone – the mills and factories have been outsourced and offshored, or simply closed, so we’ve gone back to being mobile. We may have swapped the creel and spear for a phone and laptop, and the rabbit fur has morphed into a Jeff Banks pinstripe (though I hear the grey pullover is more popular with the hipsters), but out we’ve gone into the wilds once more to wherever the food/work is.

Of course, we still need a place to work – it’s just that we’re no longer necessarily tied to one specific place. We work from the office, directly with our clients at their place of work, or the home office. Even the kitchen table gets a look in now and then. And our use of technology is now truly allowing us to reflect this landscape of agile and flexible working.

The first laptops were not-so-lovingly referred to as “luggable”, and the equivalent mobile phones were anything but (an article on Wikipedia compared an Osborne Executive portable computer, from 1982, to a 2007 Apple iPhone; the Executive weighs 100 times as much, is nearly 500 times as large by volume, costs approximately 10 times as much – inflation adjusted – and has 1/100th the clock frequency of the smartphone), but at least the effort of innovation was being made – even if the latter “bricks” began as the sole provision of the well-heeled yuppie: briefcase in one hand, quarter-wave with a one-call battery life in the other. Feel free to shudder at the memory. Now, however, the decidedly ubiquitous Smartphone goes with us wherever we go, and brings all our data requirements with us. Our private lives, our work – all pushed, pulled and cloud-synchronised, so that whatever we need is only a finger swipe away (a reliable signal/data plan notwithstanding).

As per Moore’s Law, the processing power of our chosen technology has increased at dramatic rates (at its launch, Tim Cook pointed out that the iPhone 5S had a “workstation-class 64-bit processor”), and if you combine that with the portability of some of that technology, we are rapidly approaching the point where the future of the desktop is looking decidedly questionable. It might not be dead just yet, but depending how and where you work, that train is definitely pulling in.

Think about this for a moment – a device in your pocket (phone, tablet, take your pick) that connects via Bluetooth to a keyboard, mouse, and screen (i.e. a KVM device). Paired to your mobile device of choice, using a secure personal area network, you’ll have the freedom to work how and where you want. The desktop will have migrated to nothing more than a dumb workstation, waiting for the brain to connect. All the processing will be in your pocket, the storage cloud-based (Steve Jobs proffered the drive towards mobility as a strategic aim mid-2011: “We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device – just like an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod Touch. We’re going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud.”). The second time you arrive at the same workstation, there’ll be no login – it will have taken care of that when you came back in range.

For all my dreaming of the perfect wireless future, perhaps docking is the initial route in to this “pocket rocket” future (globally, however, standards could be an issue – as Apple continues to demonstrate, each platform will no doubt still have its own format for the physical interface, despite what the damp squib that is the EU Memorandum of Understanding has tried to put in place). The Digital AV Adapter from Apple usesHDMI to connect to an external video device – add to that the support in iOS for a Bluetooth keyboard, and we’re pretty much half way there. That having been said, there’s still no API available to enable apps to make use of a mouse, so a mouse can’t currently be used even if one can be connected (it’s a stretch, but could we see this in iOS 7.1, maybe?). Third party offerings, like the iLuv Workstation Pro, with its wired keyboard (though minus the HDMI connection, unfortunately), also go some of the way. So, although neither of these routes so far provides a full solution, it’s still a pretty reasonable start.

Although it mostly all hangs together from a technical perspective, ultimately all you get is a large phone screen, and no mouse controls (yet). Perhaps the same application that controls the connection could/should auto-detect and adapt the external display accordingly, or perhaps a future release will even see an alternative view for the GUI (as we already see in OSX with its multiple desktops). Once it’s all in place, a wireless connection between your iOS device and ‘dock’ of choice then needs to follow. Outside of the current implementation of video/music streaming (AV adapter or Apple TV), however, they don’t want you to. Not just yet.

Android, on the other hand, has had the above capability for almost two years (Ice Cream Sandwich), but I haven’t seen anyone step outside this Heath Robinson approach to connectivity with separately paired mouse and keyboard, and a mini/micro/lightening HDMI adapter (uh-oh, I think I may have inadvertently just referred to Sir Jony Ive as Heath Robinson!).

When someone finally does it properly, and they will (and I thoroughly expect it to be Apple, by the way, current mouse API failing aside), I expect it will be a touch more elegant. And timely. As I sagely wag my finger at you, know that my dream of a walk-up desktop is on its way. In any case, I’m off to get my Heath Robinson on; I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Kevin Anderson

With experience of a range of field service technologies, Kevin is a diligent and proficient consultant who leaves no stone unturned in his attempts to solve our clients’ problems. Most recently, he’s helped the Environment Agency to upgrade their mobile solution.