Next-Gen Mobile Computing

So now I am no longer affiliated with a mobile platform provider, I can again afford to have a wider look at the world out there (publicly, that is), and how timely, huh? With Microsoft buying some of the remains of the once mighty Nokia and the iPhone 5S announcement, we have a bit to play with, I suppose.

Apple then? Are you underwhelmed? Hey, you can have it in blingy gold now, you know? Do you love the new design of iOS 7 (and, yes, we all know they “sought inspiration” from Windows, etc.)? Or do you turn away in disgust that the guys from Cupertino managed again to sprinkle pixie dust in their fanboys’ and girls’ eyes?

64 Bit and ARMv8

I tell you what, the (r)evolution sits elsewhere: I would posit that the switch to a 64 bit architecture plus iBeacon (see below) will have the biggest impact. Here’s why: the chip architecture (not only the 64 bit bit but also the ARMv8 stuff) offer some performance boosts today but, more importantly, set the stage for tomorrow: you can do a lot more with this (from RAM going over 4GB, to using Trustzone, ARM’s response to BlackBerry Balance – offering two virtual processors and hence “spaces” on one phone, so you can play Angry Birds on one side without your IT folks getting grey hair over compromising precious enterprise data on the other). But it also sets the stage for using your phone as the center point of your computing life: it is powerful enough to do all this (heck, it has more power than my wife’s MacBook from 5 years ago – other than RAM, for now, that is). In effect, you will be carrying the power of a proper desktop computer. More on why this matters later.

BLE and iBeacon (and NFC?)

Add iBeacon then. Another fancy Apple marketing term, right? Well, yes, because it is basically part of package that uses Bluetooth Low Energy (or “BLE”; it’s official branding is “Bluetooth Smart” now; see here for an overview), which was deployed first by – gasp – Nokia in 2006 (!) and is also present in the BlackBerry Z10, Q10 or the stunning Z30 – all of which also sport NFC on top). The HTC One has it, too, and a few more. So what’s the big deal? Well, BLE was always a big deal: the low-energy bit means you can run peripherals that can interact with your phone that will run for years on a single small battery. The range is better, too. And all of a sudden, you are looking at something which I have been hallucinating about for the past ten years: your phone as the center of your computing needs: you walk out of the door (yes, you can lock that door with your phone, too) and you have everything with you: files, photos, music, the whole thing. You walk into your office, your phone will pick up the BLE signal from peripherals such as keyboards, monitors, a mouse (or touchpad), connects with them and you have your office computer running. You come home (yes, again unlocking your fancy door), and it will connect with the same set up (or your TV if you don’t want an additional screen scarring your interior design approach) and you have all your stuff on there, too. Your central processing unit was in your pocket all the time…

It will be interesting to see if this will kill NFC. Google has supported NFC and only recently announced BLE support for Android 4.3. Some manufacturers (BlackBerry, Samsung, HTC) support both. But BLE’s advantage is two-fold: low energy and proximity. You see, NFC only works in close range (hence the name, I guess: “near-field” communication). This can make it a bit awkward: you have to be close (any London travelers will know that: you have to get that bloody Oyster Card out of the depth of your bag/pocket/wallet to make it work; imagine you could just walk through continuing to hold your Latte and free Metro paper, taking it all in your stride). In other words: BLE is a lot more Appelesque than NFC. It doesn’t only provide the functionality (connecting device A with peripheral B) but it also does it in the most unobtrusive and somewhat stylish way.

1 + 1 = 3+

So let’s put the two together then: you have a desktop computer in your pocket and have an invisible cable connecting you to the things you need to actually also use it as a desktop computer (or laptop). What more would you need, right? Yes, exactly, nothing.

Now, mind you, Apple wasn’t first with this (whatever their marketing folks pre- or post-Steve may want you to believe). There has been the Motorola Atrix, which was the dernier crie at CES a couple of years ago: a phone with a laptop dock and off you were with a full computer. Well, you had a keyboard, laptop screen and access to a browser. Alas, it didn’t have the power of a normal PC, so wouldn’t do the full trick (read the reviews on Amazon’s product page to get an idea). For an up-to-date version, have a look at the Motorola Atrix 4G.

The thing is this: as most reviewers will tell you, Motorola did not give you the comfort of a computer, only a more comfortable and more feature-rich way to run stuff.

Apple wouldn’t do that (not even in the post-Jobs era, I would think). And this is why the 64 bit architecture matters: because that *could* deliver just that (even if it might not do so yet, which is though not down to the hardware but the lack of application software). Fast forward not very much and that might be done. And then you would have what the Atrix wanted to be (and, believe me, I was very impressed when I saw it in Las Vegas on that cold January day in 2011).

There’s More…

Let us now have a very brief glimpse at the one feature Apple gave a lot more attention to during its 5S keynote, namely that fingerprint reader. In itself, it is more of a geeky delight: don’t we all love it (well, unless you hate Apple)? But do we have anything functional to do for it other than all of us now duly locking our phones (though iOS7 now forces you to do that anyway) as we should? Well, not that much.

Alas, bring back the memories of that computer in your pocket connecting to those peripherals and then add authentication by finger-tip. Now that’s looking better, doesn’t it? All of a sudden, that makes sense, huh? You can log into your company’s enterprise e-mail – by fingerprint, you can make those PayPal payments – by fingerprint, you can log into your Facebook account – by fingerprint (no more posting nasty or just not so very funny status updates in other people’s Facebook accounts), etc. It closes the circle of mobile-centric computing.

Fear Not: Not Only Apple

Of course this is not Apple country. As I pointed out above, many manufacturers had these things before. Apple however – and that deserves a hat tip even from the trenches of the haters – has (yet again) shown its capability of packaging things in a way that make them comprehensible to people who do not fancy setting up for hours on end, who want stuff to just work. Unlike the Atrix it is not only “almost” working, it does work. Unlike Oyster, you don’t have to touch, you just need to be there. If only my old folks at BlackBerry had that marketing department…

But we will see similar solutions from many folks. They’re not daft, you see (phew!). From Apple’s perspective, it might have managed to escape the Innovator’s Dilemma once more. This, alas, is no guarantee for the future… For now though, I reckon we might be seeing glimpes of the next generation of mobile computing and, boy, am I excited! 🙂

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4 Comments

  1. Jon Jordan

    Key issue with fingerprints is 5-7 percent of the world’s population don’t have them, esp. manual workers – they wear off. That’s a big percentage, and as anyone who has used fingerprint detection on a laptop knows, even for people with fingerprints, it doesn’t work around 10 percent of the time, so you switch it off.

    Iris scanning would be much better from a biometrics point of view, but no one is going to enable that from a usability point of view.

    Much more interesting would be a mixture of standard password and infrastructure-wide security such as IP address and in-device app usage.

  2. Thanks, Jon, I just learned something! I had never thought it would be 5-7% of people! I haven’t used the new phone yet myself, so can’t say but – conceptually – the combination of the all the features I mentioned in the post open remarkable pathways, I think. I do not think that a single one of them in itself is the bees knees – it is their combination (or rather the opportunities the combinations open).

    Having said that, I fully agree with you that this is only a beginning, both in terms of identification/security as well as in the overall scheme of things. It is why I titled the post “next-gen mobile computing” rather than “I, too, like the new iPhone”, you see… 😉

  3. Ken Gai

    Heya Volker… Great to see you posting out here in the wild again!

    Curious about a few points.. wrt iBeam.. kinda ‘fun’ to see the re-brand of decade old Bluetooth function hailed as Apple game-changer.. fine as far as that goes, however; as I recall there was (is) plenty of teeth gnashing about the security of NFC for payment transactions.. a bit strange to me this somehow poses an alternative? My guess would be it’s more affordable cost per unit for the license and install.. so there’s that for the bean counters. Also thinking there will be some ‘privacy’ issues related to that always-on handshake in public spaces.

    As for the biometrics (another decade old approach, looking at Fujitsu here), imagine that’s where they decided to spend, as opposed to above, the extra $5 each. I’m not clear the time to authenticate, but a pretty good bet that might slow down paid access thru gates for the train though. Maybe they’ll add NFC to the iWatch instead (heh) as that would be ‘almost’ up to current speed as we’ve seen with now 2nd-gen. unit already deployed by Sony.. 😎

    At any rate.. looking forward to catch-up w/you again my friend.. it’s been too many years since serendipity at Wet Republic!

  4. Hello, old friend! 🙂

    re iBeam: yes, you are right of course, good old BLE. However, note how Apple manages to re-position it not by highlighting tech stuff but by offering use cases. This is where they excel (and have always excelled): they were rarely first with anything but they were often first with packaging things in a way AND communicate the resulting benefits to consumers well.

    My hunch this is (and I think I mentioned this in the post) that this is the reason for choosing BLE over NFC: from a user perspective, the slightly larger distance you can bridge matters. Security concerns etc *might* be the reason why they have not (yet?) introduced payment functions together with it but that doesn’t matter as long as they can deploy a solution that makes sense to a normal user. And as to handshakes in public places: as long as it is paired the user perception will likely be OK. I am not enough of an expert on the technical side of this so will happily listen to anyone who knows better but from a UX point of view, this certainly has the chops to win.

    As to cost/unit: If you can defend the price points (and margins) Apple has by putting something into the device that is, say, $1 more expensive, I would assume that you still have a more than sound business case (as far as I know Apple’s margins are by orders of magnitude higher than this). At the same time, you preserve the superior UX (and this is something that is crucial to Apple’s positioning).

    Re biometrics: I do not think they look at the fingerprint reader to authorise train fares (yet). As I mentioned in another comment, I haven’t played around with it yet but it is said to be quite quick, so perhaps soon. Alas, when you look at it from an ecosystem perspective: how quickly can you roll these things out (see this article: http://news.techworld.com/mobile-wireless/3426228/transport-for-london-ticketing-chief-dubious-about-mobile-nfc/)? The amount of stakeholders is insane. Again, this has nothing to do with the technology but with the experience of a user: too many stakeholders, too complex an ecosystem (or at least the bits that are exposed to the user), bad UX, no uptake.

    I am not saying all this is ideal or this is how it should be but my hunch is that this is why they took that route.

    And, yes, I wish for some drinks at a friendly neighbourhood pool bar soon, too! 🙂

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