New Uses for Old Products

Diversify your risk. This counts for financial portfolios, city centers and PDAs. Diversification and Modularity are two key concepts in the future of mobile computing devices. By destroying your PDA-literally breaking it apart- you can have a more functional and mobile computing system.

Finance 101

One of the first things you are taught in Financial Management is risk diversification. There are various components to risk, but the definition that I am looking at is: that part of a security’s risk associated with random events; it can be eliminated by proper diversification. The emphasis in this definition should be placed on “random events”.

Recently, I lost my Palm. For anyone who has not lost a piece of technology (Mobile phone, PDA, Notebook, etc.) or data, it is a traumatic experience. We live in a digital world. Redundancy is an absolute must. Data backup is fast becoming a part of daily life, and data loss is very, very painful. Trust me, I speak from experience. Those of you who have already lost data or a digital device know what I am talking about; those who have not yet experienced this 21st century wonder, will not find it pleasant either.

Data redundancy and Back-ups are based on the concept of Risk Diversification. By not having all of your data in one location, you have diversified your risk of data loss. The same way as investing your money in more than one stock- if one company tanks, you don’t lose everything. The same applies to data.

And, in this case PDAs. I have been a vehement opponent to the “all-in-one” camp for PDAs. I have never understood why anyone would want all of their digital devices in just one, easy to use (easy to lose) device. Certainly, a PDA + Telephone + Digital Camera+ MP3 Player + Scanner + Gameboy reduces the number of gadgets you have to take with you, but I strongly believe that in exchange for more space in your pockets/briefcase/purse you trade functionality and security. And, by having everything in one device, many times you are forced to take things with you that you do not need. I discussed the concept of “personal prototypes” in “New Uses for New Products” ( ), and still cling to a flexible personal computing solution.

Beyond Diversification

Going further than simply reducing the chances of losing your life in one fell swoop, unbundling the PDA provides an opportunity to break a PDA into its component parts- increasing usability, functionality and redundancy-all at the same time.

One of the main issues currently is mobile data access. There are several solutions to this problem. These include:

1. Phone + PDA = Web connection on PDA

2. Wireless enabled PDA (Palm i705, Palm VII, and Handspring Treo)

3. Wireless Modem add-on (Omnisky)

4. Wireless ISP (Aerie Networks)

5. Wi-Fi (LAN)

6. 3G PC cards (Verizon)

This array of connections provides users with some way to connect to the internet- although rarely elegantly… and usually as an afterthought.

Another pressing issue revolves around contact information. There are multiple ways to exchange and synchronize information between a handheld (PDA), a telephone and a computer- all of them time consuming at best. Still another issue involves the viewing area. There are color screens, tablets, virtual graffiti areas, etc. all vying to give the user the most and best viewing area possible.

Until recently, the solution to these issues has been to lump them all together into one “überdevice”. The results have been Frankenstein- like “smartphones” from Kyocera, the Treo from Handspring and the still unannounced “Stinger” phone from Microsoft. IBM has broken with the all-in-one philosophy, striving to move in a different direction- unbridling the personal computer [1]. The Meta Pad idea is that the “computer” is a small black core, with everything else being an accessory. Basically, you have a small hard disk that serves as the storage for a PDA, notebook or desktop computer. While this is a step in the right direction- making computers modular- it is a risk diversification nightmare. If you lose the “core” you lose your PDA, Notebook and Desktop all at once.

Fundamental Elements

There are six general functionality or elements in mobile personal computing: Speaking, Hearing, Seeing, Writing, Storage and Connectivity. I propose that things should be left to do what it is they do, and forget about all-in-one devices.

There have been several attempts to move these elements around, combining and recombining them. My personal favorite is “hands-free” communication where you wear an earpiece/headset, looking like Madonna, a Telemarketer or an insane person talking to yourself. For arguments sake, let’s confine hands-free communication to speaker phones and the car.

Building on existing technologies, and using a bit of imagination, I propose unbundling the connectivity aspect of both a PDA and Telephone and putting that in a watch. More precisely, a wristwatch. Something between Timex’s Internet Messenger [2] and i-Mode prototype 3G watch-phones with videoconferencing. It provides a wide area connection (GPRS, 3G), a local area wireless connection (let’s put a Bluetooth chip in the watch) and a rudimentary display (as with the Timex). (As an added benefit, it could serve as your notebook’s Internet connection as well. You type along and your notebook connects wirelessly via your wristwatch.)

Why a watch-phone? For one, it’s attached to your wrist- you’re not going to forget it. Two, it can vibrate- no more annoying ringing phones. Three, position. Pick up the nearest telephone. Look at where the watch clasp is: right under the mouthpiece of your phone, right next to your mouth. A small microphone in a watch clasp gives a speech input. This could also be handy for short voice messages to your self- just press a button and talk into your watch “Jason’s e-mail is j a s o n”. And four, Connectivity. Various transportation studies have revealed that “lack of connectivity” is a major inconvenience for passengers. It is no surprise. Lack of connectivity is crippling in the 21st century. Because connectivity plays such an important role in our lives, I’ve made connectivity the center of the device.

The only part missing is the earpiece. This could take multiple forms. From the Madonna look-alike headset, to holding a lightweight earpiece, to traditional ear buds (which could also be used for listening to music) or even a placebo/pseudo communication device. We’ll leave that open…however, whatever it is, it needs a connection to your wrist-either with wires or wirelessly.

Moving on to Seeing and Writing…As I said, the “watch” could have a rudimentary display- exactly like the Timex. You could read e-mails, read your agenda for the day, look up phone numbers using a scroll button, pretty much anything you can view on a mobile phone. Or, you could have a larger display that you carried separately, one that showed the information from your “watch”. Maybe you need to look at Excel spreadsheets on the go, in which case this would be great. Or, if you just need to look at text emails, perhaps the small screen would do. In either case, you could decide based on your needs what type of viewing area you need. Maybe your needs change from Monday morning to Saturday night, you can take a big screen with you or leave it at home. Modularity at work.

But what about data entry (Writing)? The new pen from Anoto [3] could solve the data input problem. Because it reads your handwriting and converts that information into 0s and 1s, the information could be transferred via Bluetooth, making an Anoto pen an excellent input device.

Not forgetting Storage, there could be a slot for a stamp-sized Smart Media card. You could easily store 64MB (up to 1GB) of information on that card- which would always be on your wrist. This could easily be backed up with a Desktop or Notebook computer. And, if you chose to use a normal PDA as your large screen, the Smart Media card could easily be inserted and used in your PDA as well.

Strange, yet familiar

The items I’ve pointed out above to be linked together have little to do with what a PDA looks like today, yet maintains the functionality of a PDA and Telephone, while reducing the number of devices you must keep up with, and decreasing the chances that you will leave the most important piece behind-which is the watch- in a taxi cab- all inside of, or replacing, everyday items.

The point isn’t so much what fancy technology can do for us, rather I want to point out that certain functionalities are needed to be connected and mobile. These functionalities do not necessarily have to be bundled together- they can be broken apart and combined in meaningful ways. I’m sure one day looking like Captain Kirk will be completely acceptable, however until then perhaps we can get by talking in to pseudo phones and reading emails on wristwatches…

A special thanks to all of you!

Here we are a year after the first Double-Think was published. Subscriptions continue to grow and more of you write with comments as well. I always enjoy hearing from you, and urge you to continue write me with your comments, suggestions and criticisms.

You may be also be interested in my personal Tech Bytes web log as well- . Tech Bytes is a brief selection of technology news, sprinkled with comments and occasional articles.

Thanks again to all of you, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading my articles.

Until next time- Happy Double-Thinking!

Jason Ball

[1] “IBM plays with chameleon-like computer”. CNET News.

[2] Timex Internet Messenger

Further reading on risk diversification:

“Divided We Stand” Wired 9.12

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s