Unplugged

It’s the 21st Century: Do You Know Where Your Computer Is?

March/April 2011

Almost 20 years ago, a researcher at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) proposed a world in which ubiquitous computing would connect us to each other and the things around us—effortlessly, as we moved through our daily routines, without consciously accessing a computer. The researcher, Mark Weiser, opened his article “The Computer for the 21st Century” in Scientific American magazine’s September 1991 issue with this assessment: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” He continued, “ … then we are freed to use them without thinking and focus on other goals.”

One of the products announced at this January’s CES 2011 moves us a big step toward Weiser’s vision: The Motorola Atrix 4G phone. Andrew Wood of VirtualizationPractice.com described the Atrix as “the first smartphone capable of being a practical laptop/desktop alternative,” because of its ability to morph from a handheld device into a laptop computer, desktop computer, and a high-definition media player. Atrix replaces the “computer,” as we know it, with the smartphone.

The Atrix blurs the line between phones and computers. With its ultra-fast Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core processor and gigabyte of RAM, it has more processing power and memory than many of yesterday’s mini and mainframe computers. But Atrix’s accessories are what makes it so special: its “laptop” docking station that provides a keyboard, 11.6-inch screen, battery, and full Firefox browser. The user can operate every function on his or her phone from the docking station, with the phone integrated to information accessed from the browser, such as identifying and dialing a phone number listed on a Web page. The computing power and network connections are from the mobile phone: The dock has no processing power or network connections of its own.

Atrix also snaps into two other docks, which connect it to a traditional set of desktop peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer) and to a video player using Motorola’s MediaCenter application. The Atrix can stream 1080p high-definition video to any screen that has a high-definition HDMI input.

The Atrix doesn’t completely fulfill Weiser’s ubiquitous computing vision, as it still focuses attention on a single device instead of having computing power embedded in every object in our lives. Even so, the Atrix makes a big step forward by enabling seamless interactivity between an individual’s personal device and the computing resources available within our enterprises, families, and the Internet at large.

Other emerging mobile devices and services are also moving us closer to Weiser’s vision. Inside PARC during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Weiser’s team developed and used a set of devices called tabs, pads, and live boards to test their vision of invisible computing … names strangely common with two of today’s most popular wireless devices: the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Apple iPad. While the Galaxy Tab and iPad don’t equate directly to Weiser’s tabs and pads, they too are part of the tide that is drawing us nearer to Weiser’s vision.

Tabs, to Weiser, were simple programmable objects not bigger than the palm of your hand that could be used to store information either permanently, such as identifying a book, or temporarily, as a virtual sticky note. Today the closest thing to Weiser’s tabs are RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags, which are widely used by businesses but haven’t found their way into consumer products. Today’s mobile phones can be thought of as “super tags,” reporting our status and location, providing access to information archives, plus providing communication.

Similar to tabs, PARC’s pads were sheet-sized tablets with touchscreens, network access, and collaboration software that were not dedicated to a particular purpose. Tabs and pads were meant to be used and discarded as needed, such as taking meeting notes.

Today’s tablet computers serve many of the same purposes as Weiser’s pads, though they belong to an individual and are used for a number of different purposes instead of being general-purpose slates that float between individuals based on purpose. Weiser’s team preferred tabs and pads to virtual calendar systems because they can be physically arranged on a desktop to provide visual task reminders and prioritization in a way that an electronic calendar cannot.

In this way, tabs and pads reside within the real world, and they do not force their users into the virtual world to view open tasks, priorities, and deadlines. The physical reminder is also passed to the next person when tasks are transferred between team members. It’s harder to ignore a pad sitting on your desk than a to-do item residing on your computer’s virtual desktop.

Starting with live boards, Weiser’s vision converges closer to today’s reality. Already, we can hold interactive meetings on large, flat-screen monitors with multiple input sources and shared control. Weiser’s vision of how the cloud would be used both to access and share information and connect individuals resembles today’s implementation of the cloud and social networking.

One day, I hope we will realize the PARC team’s vision of computing that is so embedded in our daily activities that we are able to reap the benefits of expanded access to information, confidantes, and communities without having to consciously “boot up” our computers or reach for our smartphones. Until then, it’s gratifying to see the mobile device and cloud computing providers moving closer to Weiser’s vision of freeing us from our computers so we can focus on the real world, instead.

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Laurie Lamberth knows where her computer is at all times. Learn about her strategic business development and marketing consultancy at www.laurielamberth.com

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