Some thoughts on the future of mobile computing
Imagine this scenario; You live in New York, but you’re in Boston on a business trip and staying in a hotel. You have your tablet with you (and nothing else), so you connect it to the 1080p TV in the room, find your Bluetooh keyboard and Bluetooth mouse and play the PC version of Crysis 2 (or whatever the most demanding game today is) with maximum settings, then edit a 1080p video before rounding off with watching a 1080p Blu Ray rip before bed.Sounds like science fiction? It’s not. In fact the technology is there, we just have to start using it.
You might wonder what on Earth I’m talking about with this science fiction nonsense, but I can assure you that it’s everything but science fiction. The entire computer industry is based around getting data from storage medium A through processing unit B and output it to screen C. Because you have to move a lot of data from A to B to C these three “components” have always needed to be stored in close proximity to one another so that you could just connect them with cables. Even if the keyboard, mouse and screen is mostly all you’re actually interacting with on a modern day computer, it’s not like you can take those three with you on a holiday across the country and continue whatever you were doing, as you’d need a seriously long extension cord. That’s basically why laptops came to be; we needed smaller, more portable versions of our desktop computers in order to be able to bring the computer with us. While they do give us a screen, data storage, input devices etc they’re not exactly what you’d call optimized for computing- at least not when you compare any laptop with a similarly priced desktop setup. Still, it’s better than carrying 50 pounds worth of desktop computer and a 500 mile long extension cord just to fly to a meeting in another city, so we get by.
It all comes down to wireless extension cords
This is all starting to change though. With Internet connection speeds increasing across the board every year and becoming available to more and more people, we’re getting closer and closer to the holy grail of the connected society; wireless extension cords. In other words, the point in time where the connection speed between devices is fast enough to act as a reliable substitute for cables, allowing us to leave the brain of the computer at home and just take the screen and input devices with us. The speed is already there, we just need to get it rolled out everywhere. Solid, fast Internet connections for all houses and businesses and LTE (4G) for all mobile devices- with enough total capacity for the theoretical speeds to be a reality. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.
When this time comes, there is no reason to carry fast computing devices with us anymore. All we will need is a fast stationary computer at home connected to a good Internet connection and a much slower, optimized-for-portability device on the other end. By “good Internet connection” I mean both a lot of bandwidth (amount of data transferred at once) and the ping (time it takes the data to get from A to B). We’re already doing a lot of this kind of computing today, we just don’t realize it.
Heck, the entire Internet with web pages, apps like Gmail, social sites like Facebook and more complicated services like Google Documents and Jolicloud is based around the concept of things happening on a distant server which is then presented to the end user anywhere in the world. Some have taken it even further, like OnLive who lets you play advanced computer games using just a tiny receiver and a controller, as the actual computing happens on a server. Businesses use systems like VMware and Citrix to run fleets of virtual computers on massive servers and then have the workers connect to these virtual computers using something as simple as a web browser. We’re already at the point where we use less and less of the local computer power and rely more and more on being able to connect to optimized supercomputers half way across the world. All we need now is a solid enough global network that will make it possible to get rid of the local dependency on power altogether.
Apps like SplashStop are going to play major roles in getting to where we need going. Remember the iPad, that locked-down, low-performance (in desktop computer terms) flat piece of glass and metal that can’t even run Flash, common formats of HD video or boot a version of Windows that laptops ran on 10 years ago? With a $5 app, a fast home computer who can do all of that and a fast enough Internet connection between the two the iPad is suddenly able to do all of that, and more. Given that you have that fast Internet connection wherever you go, why on earth would you carry around a 5 pound laptop that costs a fortune, burns your testicles, runs out of battery power after 2 hours and tries to self-destruct when you try to edit a 1080p video on it? You wouldn’t. No one would.
Inputs and outputs- they’re all just accessories
Now, before the complaints start raining in, I’m aware of the differences between an iPad (or another tablet) and a laptop aside from pure computing power. You want a 1080p screen, plenty of USB ports for connecting humping dogs, a keyboard, trackpad/mouse and the safety of not being reliant on an Internet connection. Well, the screen resolution issue is a simple thing to fix; increase it. The iPad 2 may not have 4x the resolution of the iPad 1 and the top-of-the-line Android tablets may only have 1280×800 pixel screens, but how long do you think that is going to last? You can already connect these things to external displays, so the physical screen size shouldn’t be a problem even if we need to invent a whole new product group with portable displays. You’re still using less expensive parts than a laptop, and you don’t have to throw it away when you upgrade. The same goes for USB ports, mice and keyboards; there’s no reason these “accessories” should be permanently attached to your display. Even today you can connect most of these things to tablets, depending on what tablet you have- and we’re not even close to the point where people would absolutely demand it yet.
Why then, you might ask, would tablets kill laptops if you’re just going to connect bigger screens, keyboards, mice and whatnot to them anyways? Because of the same reason why houses don’t come with carpets, tables, chairs, beds etc nailed to the floor; adaptability. Laptops are for all intents and purposes tablets with accessories glued to them. It’s great to have that keyboard permanently attached as long as you want a laptop form factor, but you can’t rip off the screen and go read a book in bed. Well, you can, but that would mean it wasn’t a laptop to begin with, but a tablet with a keyboard attached to it. As the EEE Pad Transformers clearly shows, having the keyboard, trackpad, connection ports and even an extra battery as a single detachable piece means you have a notebook that no-one would look twice at one minute, and a flat, handy tablet the next.
The point here is that tablets are the most basic units you can have; it’s a screen with the technology to make stuff appear on the screen. Everything else is connected as you need it. Just because I’m saying that laptops will die doesn’t mean that the laptop form factor will disappear, it just means that laptops will become one shape that tablets can take rather than your only option. In reality, it’s all a matter of semantics, or rather a matter of having that detachability between the screen and the keyboard. Then you have the OS part which most people consider as implied differences between tablets and laptops, even though you can get laptop shaped Android devices and Windows tablets. This universal view of laptops as devices that run Windows/OSX/Linux and tablets as smaller, “baby OS” devices is only valid as long as we’re still running the OS locally. Naturally you’ll always need some sort of local hardware to interpret input commands, send them off to the server/brain that’s doing all the work and handling the returning signal, but that doesn’t require a lot of power at all- which is why apps such as SplashTop lets you do things on an iPad connected to a fast computer that you couldn’t do on most laptops. The less power you need locally, the more you can devote to things like the screen (brightness, resolution), general battery life etc. The iPad can run for about 10 hours as it is today and most top-of-the-line Android tablets are right up there with it. They do this on 25wH batteries, whereas the same battery capacity in a low power netbook will have it die well before it reaches the half way mark- all because of the inherent difference in performance requirement on (what we mean by) laptops and tablets. Eliminate the need for local horsepower, and your power issues are sold. Again, if a 600 gram LTE enabled tablet can remote control an AC powered high performance desktop computer from anywhere, you don’t have to worry about 5 pound laptops with 1/5 the performance capability as said desktop that cost you more than the tablet and desktop combined and run out of battery after 2 hours.
We’re already depending on the Internet
That leaves us with the final argument against this system; reliability. What if you don’t have access to the Internet, or if it’s too slow? Sure, then you’re screwed. But really, aren’t we already depending on the Internet to get anything done? Entire businesses go down when the Internet does even today, but that happens less and less frequently as technologies get better and redundancies are in place. If my Internet connection went down 3 years ago I sat there waiting for it to return. If it goes down today, I turn off Wifi and use 3G instead. It’s natural to not trust the reliability of new technologies though. Do you think people threw out their candles the day that electricity was invented? Did people throw out their landline telephones when cell phones came out? No to both- back then, however personally I don’t have either any candles nor a landline phone these days and the same goes for many other people. We’re talking a few years into the future here, not two weeks from now, and yet all this is possible today- just with a few holes in the network.
It’s also important to understand what data will actually need to be transferred between the receiving device and the “brain”. Many of you might have had reactions such as “there will be decades until wireless Internet is fast enough for me to transfer all my HD video files from the home device to a portable tablet” and/or “tablets have too little storage”. That’s true, but in both cases it doesn’t matter. Conventional thinking states that if you want to watch a 4GB HD movie on your tablet, you need to transfer 4GB of data to your tablet, and if a computer game takes up 20GB of space when installed you need to buffer 20GB of data before you can play it via the Internet. Right? No. If you have a system which is completely based on a stationary computer serving a portable receiver, you don’t need any storage on the receiver at all. Your PC monitor doesn’t have any storage in it, because the computer handles that. If you want to watch a movie on your computer monitor, you don’t download it to the monitor- you download it to the computer. The computer handles everything from storage to processing data, and only the video signal ends up going to the screen. The same would be true here. You wouldn’t download a file on your tablet, wait for it to transfer to your home computer and then remotely watch it- you would remotely download the movie and then remotely watch it. Aside from any files you would physically need to deal with on the tablet end, no file transfers of any kind would happen between the two devices- only a video signal, audio signal, and input signals from the tablet (mouse, keyboard etc). That also means you would require far less bandwidth than you’d think, because streaming in real time doesn’t make you wait for a file to transfer. If it takes you 1 hour to physically download a 2 hour movie then that will seem like a long time to wait, but if you’re streaming it you’re actually just transferring it at half the speed but doing so in a way that lets you watch at the same time.
Personally I can’t wait for this to become reality, and the reason I’m convinced it will is that it’s already happening, as I mentioned at the beginning. So far most people are limiting themselves to cloud based services and not as much the whole home computer/remote control concept, and maybe we will skip directly to having everything based in the clouds, though the reason I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon is licensing issues. I doubt Microsoft, Adobe or any of the big software companies are willing to move to what’s essentially a rental system for software, but maybe I’m wrong. It will take some time until absolutely everything is available that way anyways, so if you want to remote control Photoshop from a tablet you’ll have to do it yourself for the time being.
Just to prove my point one last time, below you’ll find a video I just shot. On the left is my netbook and on the right is my iPad. Technically speaking, the netbook is faster in every way. They’re both playing back a 1080p YouTube video using the same version of Flash in the same OS- Windows 7. The difference is that the netbook does it locally, the iPad is simply remotely connected to my main computer. Also, the netbook would run out of battery power in half the time the iPad would, even though it has almost twice the battery capacity (48Wh vs 25Wh). It also weighs more than twice as much. I rest my case.