The myth of the One True Device

Earlier this week Tim Bray confessed his lack of lust for a do-everything phone, and then Jeremy Zawodny agreed, and then Russell Beattie dope-slapped both of them pretty hard. I, of course, agree with everybody.

Like Tim and Jeremy, I'm much more likely to have a connected computer handy than not, in which case I'll prefer it for most things. Including, I expect, non-mobile telephony, because some of the most interesting telephony applications I envision involve a "real" computer.

Like Russell, though, I know that being tethered to a high-powered general-purpose computer is not the normal human condition, and never will be. Phones really are becoming the ubiquitous common denominator. I foresaw the decline of the PDA, and opted to skip them. It always seemed to me that when many functions collapsed into one handheld device -- including communication, music, photography, personal information management, and digital identity -- that device would be, first and foremost, a phone. Now that smart phones are becoming more credible, I'm quite keen to use them. And as an infoware developer, I'm always interested in reaching the widest possible audience. Even if I didn't want to use mobile devices myself (and I do), I'd have to respect the installed base.

The gating factor for me is location, though. I live in an part of New Hampshire where, through a weird twist of fate, it now seems possible that I'll have a fiberoptic Internet connection to my home before I get leading-edge service to my cellphone.

While I'm waiting for the connectivity gods to smile on me, here's a third scenario to ponder. Pervasive connectivity and ubiquitous computing don't depend on the device you tote in your briefcase or clip to your belt. Or anyway, they shouldn't. The environments we visit, as well as the ones we live and work in, could provide for our communication and computational needs. Service portability would, in many cases, trump device portability.

Consider the hotel telephone. You'd be crazy to use it. The flaw lies not with the device, though, but with the service attached to it. Cellphone minutes are way cheaper. Failing that, as perhaps in the case of an international call, there's Skype on your computer. (Some Vonage users even bring their Cisco ATA 186s with them.) But if you could temporarily attach your telephony services to the hotel phone, along with your address book, why not use it? This academic question becomes a matter of urgency if, god forbid, your personal phone is lost, stolen, or broken.

The same applies to the computer that might be available for your use in the hotel room, the library, the restaurant, the airport, the school, the client's conference room. The ultimate freedom, to me, would be the freedom not to have to tote my TiBook everywhere, because I'd know its generic equivalent would be waiting for me in all of these places. Identify to the device; flow your preferences and data and applications to it; use it for a while; wipe the slate clean. To make this scenario real, we'll need to completely decouple our software, preferences, and data from hardware. As well we should. That way, when your laptop is lost, stolen, or broken, you need not suffer a stroke.

We get glimpses of that scenario today: the kiosk-based browser, the SIM-card-activated GSM phone. Bring it on. We can debate which is the One True Device but it's ultimately pointless. There is no such thing.

Former URL: