Spin it, slide it, flip it, pop its top and touch it all over--sounds like a '70s rock opera. But no, those are just the latest twists on small computing.
Designers have gotten pretty good at packing information and functionality into smaller and smaller devices. The tough part is getting it out again. At the limits of engineering where mobile computing lives, compromises must be made--none more challenging than human-machine interactions. The smaller and more portable a device is, the less room for displays and "normal" input systems.
Screens and keyboards continue their perpetual tug of war over handheld real estate, but designers are coming up with ingenious ways to keep the peace. It starts with a new generation of Windows Mobile 6 smartphones and ultramobile PCs that downsize the traditional user interface. For example, slide the display on Sprint's Mogul by HTC, T-Mobile's Wing or Sony's Mylo Personal Communicator up or over, and there's your keyboard. Displays on Helio's new Ocean and Nokia's N95 multimedia computer spin one way for a keyboard, another for a phone pad--and reorient to portrait or landscape views as necessary.
Mouse alternatives include any number of scroll pads, thumb wheels and touchscreens--some, like Palm Pilot's Graffiti shorthand and BlackBerry's thumb typing, requiring more human accommodation than others. They sounded implausible at first but have worked for many types of traveling business users. Interesting how Palm gave up handwriting when thumb typing was invented. Keyboards have survived a lot of "better" ideas.
But themes that work endure--and often get combined with other survivors. The 5.6-inch display on Fujitsu's new FMV-U8240 UMPC hearkens back to Toshiba's long-running Portege tablet; it spins around and folds back at whatever angle is best for viewing or handwriting. But you can hold the 1.2-pound FMV-U8240 comfortably in both hands and thumb type on its minikeyboard. Sony's new Vista-based Vaio UX380N is yet another mix--a same-size UMPC whose thumb keyboard hides under a slide-up display that also responds to pen or fingertip.
The sheer variety of solutions demonstrates that we haven't arrived at the answer yet. But that doesn't mean we aren't enjoying the ride. IDC says we'll be buying 54 percent more converged mobile devices every year over the next four years. That's twice the uptake of the hot laptop category. So what's a CMD? A small computing/ phone device like those mentioned above. IDC figures that by 2011, we'll be carrying 82 million of them around.
Again, the smaller they become, the harder it is to get stuff out of them. But Apple appears to be onto something--as usual--with its iPhone. Touch navigation has become a defining characteristic of the iPhone. No keyboard, no keypad; all real estate is devoted to a big, 3.5-inch color display controlled by finger swipes.
Coming up with a sufficiently tactile display that can deliver good response at low resolutions in any light and survive greasy fingers and such is no small feat. Apple is addressing these long-running challenges by combining multiple technologies, says Jennifer Colegrove, senior analyst for market researcher iSuppli. And with more than 100 manufacturers working on 16 different touchscreen technologies, Apple won't be alone in making the market for touch.
"Touchscreen displays will find a role in nearly every aspect of electronics life, from planes to automobiles to machine-control systems to home appliances," predicts Colegrove. And even if iPhone disappoints, having a mass-market lifestyle company like Apple evangelize touchscreens lifts all boats.
Some interesting ideas being floated include Flux Media's new Centrafuse overlay for Windows. You control all computing and media functions in a UMPC or car console--from the car radio and other media players to GPS navigation, web browsing and productivity software--with your finger. Centrafuse will even read your e-mail aloud. How about controlling your iPhone using buttons sewn into your clothing? Eleksen builds fabric keyboards, controllers and other input devices--some of which work in three dimensions. Future optical touch displays won't actually need contact, predicts Colegrove--just the approach of a finger or stylus.
From One, Many
For decades, we thought we needed an ultimate, do-everything portable that would hold a desktop's worth of information and software. Then somebody invented the internet, and someone else invented wireless networking.
Now, small computers are networked endpoints that satisfy one or two big needs well, a couple of others middling, and can also tap that big knowledge base in the sky. Handhelds won't be constrained by case dimensions going forward because unlimited applications and information will be as close as a broadband internet connection.
We'd all like as much mobility, functionality and convenience as we can get, but our own physiology says we can't have them all in the same proportion. We'll pick the ultralight, tablet, UMPC or smartphone that best fits our primary needs and workstyle preferences--and maybe a second complementing that feature set.
It will be different pen, thumb, finger or keystrokes for different folks in different situations, but choices are plenty.
Mike Hoganis Entrepreneur's technology editor.