Making Knowledge Work

April 25, 2011

Mobile Information. LIKE 23

Filed under: Communication, LIKE — Tags: , , — virginiahenry @ 3:46 pm

On the last evening of March Mark Needham – the far-sighted founder of Widget (UK) Ltd – presented us with information at the speed of LIKE 😉

Just a few days before we welcomed the 500th person to join the London Information & Knowledge Exchange, it was especially appropriate that one of our newest expert members should give us a lightening review of the evolution of ‘pocket computers’.

Mark told us how a Starship hero in “The Mote in God’s Eye” had used a pocket computer in 1974, long before they were available to us in this tasty world.  By the 1980s you didn’t need so much imagination to see the future coming.  Mark was then working at Psion and their Organiser 1 . was a revolutionary device.  Its 2k of RAM and 8k or 16k memory cards may seem puny now but, Mark told us, the evolutionary line from Psion to Smartphone is clear.  And the great inventions – microprocessors, the worldwide web and wireless networks – that enable us all to carry pocket computers have been around for over two decades.

Mark compared the delay between the emergence of such innovations, and public uptake of them, to the time lapse between the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century and the mass production of the Model T Ford in the 1920s.  And, just as cars have remained basically recognisable for the past century, handheld computers are likely to undergo lots of minor improvements, but remain consistently familiar to us.  It may become common practice for us to use our phones for video calls and to make movies – but Mark’s iPhone will still carry the data he’s been transferring to each new device since he first saved it to his Organiser 30 years ago.

Henry Ford, with his vision of consumerism as the key to world peace, would probably have been delighted by the ubiquitous Smartphone and, maybe, even more chuffed that its development is so obviously being driven by user demand.

Andrew Swaine, another expert member of LIKE, runs knowledge sharing and internal communications at ARM 

Andrew explained the powerful influence Smartphone users were having on the evolution of his industry.  The focus used to be on how fast a computer was, now it’s all about power consumption: pocket computers need to run for an entire day (his Smartphone works for 10 hours, but his laptop battery lasts for 2 hours!).  And although battery technology isn’t progressing very fast, people are writing programmes taking into account not only how fast they are, but how much power they consume.

Speed of performance is high on Users list of must-haves too, so Andrew foresaw a pretty rapid evolution from multi-core (lots of phones are now dual core) to many-core.

And platforms are being consolidated – impatient users will demand a single working environment across all platforms.  Andrew hoped one day to be able to plug his iPhone into a docking station, as he currently does his laptop.

There’s lots of change happening in his industry, not least because it was taken rather by surprise at the big deal applications on phones became – in such a short time.  The web wasn’t really ready for it.  Andrew reckons that we’ll end up using web applications a lot more, to overcome carrier and storage issues, and improve user experience.

Users rule!  When, as is the case, the interactive experience is more important than the underlying hardware – anything that irritates a user is “officially” a bug (music to the ears of anyone who has worked with uncompromising, unempathic Developers :-))!   If you’ve lost data because you didn’t save a document, you are not a stupid user – the interface is wrong.  So on mobile phones and tablets, you don’t need to remember to save stuff.

Andrew said it wasn’t because there’s anything special about mobile:  it’s just that at this period of change in the industry it has been possible to change underlying assumptions about user behaviour quite rapidly.

After the inevitable comparisons of what mobile devices we all had on us (to my perverse delight – it’s not like I don’t know how desirable Apple stuff is – we HTC users seemed to outnumber the iPhoners, and lots of us had business Blackberries) we got down to a pre-dinner exercise. Groups around different tables were asked to identify the kinds of information different professionals need to access via their pocket computers, and the barriers to doing so.

Requirements included:

Office documents, contact details, schedules, spreadsheets etc, legal information, research papers, reference sites, Hansard (for MPs), news reports, business systems, audio and video, sites for the co-ordination of activities (in case of Aid Agencies), lesson plans and registers (in the case of Teachers)

And among the Constraints were:

Tiny screens, the need for the device to be as effective at ‘ input’ as it is at ‘consumption’ of data, lack of single sign-on, lack of  voice recognition, unreliable infrastructure, employer policies, information management issues such as document versioning control and lack of confidence in data security – eg of cloud hosting under US regulatory system.

Well, Ford cars may not be the most inspiring of analogies, but the Maserati brothers  started creating their steel symphonies just a couple of decades after Henry’s Model T first came out – and look where that’s led in a relatively short time!  It surely won’t be long before our pocket computers can do all the stuff we want and need them to do.  Probably rather stylishly.

Talking of innovative chaps, my wonderful husband has just ordered me a Kindle.  On the basis that “you’ve always got your nose in a book, might as well have a lightweight collection to carry around”.  Among my first downloads will be a chapter or two of Mark Needham’s new eBook “66 Famous Plots Updated with Modern Technology”   Apparently it all started with Bill Proud’s tweet from Anna Karenina……

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