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Convergence: one device to rule them all

DeviceConvergencyWith exciting advances in mobile technologies enabling personal device manufacturers to do more with less, Melody Ayres-Griffiths looks into her digital crystal ball to predict how convergence may look, and how we might get there.

13 March 2011

Imagine, if you will, the following: Arriving at your workstation in the morning, you place your mobile phone on a wireless charging ‘pad’, which then happily begins replenishing your phone’s battery.

This does not even need to be left to the imagination – you can do this now. But wait: your workstation’s display then flickers to life; your keyboard and mouse come to attention, ready to provide input and output to your work PC… which also happens to be your mobile phone.

Further, your office VOIP-phone automatically detects the presence of your mobile, and then talks to its central server over your device’s 4G or WiMax connection, checking for missed calls and voicemail. Your mobile establishes a link to your office space in the ‘cloud’ – be it Microsoft’s or Google’s – and you’re ready to go.

Your workday has begun, and all you’ve done is put down your mobile phone.

After a few hours, you decide its time for a much-deserved latté. You pick up your mobile phone, which detects the movement and, before saying goodbye to its ‘fellow co-workers’ for the moment, instantly forwards your office phone to its own number, and off you go to your local café, safe in the knowledge that you are contactable.

While you wait for your order, you place your mobile phone on the pad handily provided on the table by which you sit, and the display beside it brings up your favourite news sites, the navigation of which you perform using your phones own screen, as if it were a wireless touchpad.

Your phone politely informs you an important business meeting is soon, and so you collect your latté and it’s off to the conference room, where you link your mobile to the overhead projector, or the digital whiteboard.

The presentation you had previously scheduled is retrieved from your company’s space in the cloud, ready for an exhibition – that you then control with your phone’s touchscreen.

It all goes off very well, and a few hours later you call it a day, then head home.

In your car, you place your phone into the holder on the dashboard, and your mobile becomes your GPS and navigator, directing you away from accidents and traffic backlogs while giving you the hands-free ability to send an e-mail, make a call, or verbally brainstorm and make notes for yourself as you go.

Your location information is shared over Google Latitude, or another service, and your family is able to know where you are. Your partner sends a message asking you to pick up a litre of orange juice, and the GPS automatically reroutes you to the nearest supermarket – with the best price on orange juice.

Once home, you head for the kitchen, ready to prepare a tasty-sounding ‘chilli con pollo’ recipe you chanced across online. Your phone walks you through it using text-to-speech and speech recognition technologies – you don’t ever need to touch it with your hands, and risk spreading bacteria about.

Dinner served, it’s off to the lounge, where you place your mobile phone on the pad beside your ‘television’, and it connects to your in-house network-attached storage, your personal space in the cloud, or a streaming media service, providing the evening’s entertainment.

Finally, you place your mobile on the pad on the nightstand beside your bed, and it lulls you to sleep with an ocean sound-scape, ready to politely awake you in the morning to do it all again.

The far-off future? Hardly.

Many of the things I described, from wireless charging to location management services can be done now, to some degree or another. Google’s Android operating system, perhaps the biggest-ever threat to Microsoft’s dominance, is fast approaching a maturity that, on a software level, will permit all of this and more.

The hardware required is slowly starting to appear on the marketplace as you read this, such as Motorola’s Atrix 4G – although its interface with peripherals is not yet wireless, but this final step to convergence is not likely to be long in coming.

The difficulty from an industry standpoint is that you’ll have accomplished virtually all of your computing needs with a single CPU, thereby considerably lowering demand for expensive microprocessors in a market already suffering from reduced demand for personal computers.

This has led to a vigorous competition between chipset vendors to see who can achieve mobile dominance first: Intel, Nvidia or ARM.

Intel, the dominant desktop and server PC processor manufacturer, has had a poor start into the mobile world. Having previously all-but-ignored the handheld device market, its initial ‘Moorestown’ mobile-device variant of it’s popular Atom complex instruction-set (CISC) netbook processor, announced in 2010, did not have much success due to its unsuitably high power consumption.

Intel’s second attempt, ‘Medfield’, which is smaller and less power hungry, is said to be entering mass production later this year, but Intel has a huge task in defeating the dominant ARM mobile-processor architecture that presently rules the market.

The vast majority of present-day hand-held devices are based on ARM Holding’s reduced instruction-set (RISC) designs, and are used by the majority of smartphone manufacturers, including Samsung, HTC, Research In Motion and others. RISC processors use lower power than CISC-based CPU’s such as those manufactured by Intel, and thus are better suited for battery-based devices; however, Intel hopes to close the gap by advancements in the reduction of the diameter of the circuitry used in its processors, thus generating less heat and using less power.

That will be a tight race. However, Intel may be overrun by a dark horse: Nvidia.

Initially a manufacturer of video chipsets for PCs, NVidia has found modest success over the last few years manufacturing mobile chipsets. The Tegra 2 was the first dual-core chipset for mobile phones, but was not sophisticated enough to really position itself as a true desktop replacement.

Announced last month, the next-generation “Kal-El” chipset will feature a quad-core processor with the ability to drive a 2560x1600 pixel display (1080i high-definition video is 1920x1080 pixels), and perform tasks with the same speed as an Intel Core 2 Duo T7200, a processor faster than found in most operating present-day desktop PCs.

Although its CPU is based on ARM’s technology, Nvidia’s ‘whole system-on-a-chip’ approach has enabled it to find efficiencies that may make Intel’s optimisations fall short in its efforts to catch up, potentially crowning Nvidia as the new champion of portable consumer electronics, from smartphones to tablets and even netbooks and laptops – although, with the potential proliferation of ‘docking stations’ as described at the head of this article, those last two – netbooks and laptops – may be rendered virtually obsolete.

What does this all mean in practice?

All of that technical gobbeldy-gook aside, what do these advances – and those soon ahead – mean to the average person?

First off, personal device convergence will buy you time. Automation in device interaction – your office number automatically forwarding itself to your mobile when you leave your desk, for example – although small amounts in themselves quickly add up to much-desired precious minutes every day.

Who doesn’t want an extra three or four minutes in the evening to read to their child, or relax with a glass of sparkling?

Secondly, if an urgent matter, or an emergency arises, your ‘personal technological assistant’ will be easily able to co-ordinate the various aspects of not only dealing with the matter at hand, but also re-schedule meetings and contact appropriate people to manage the short and long-term consequences of the incident, reducing the stress involved and leading to an easier return to normality.

Third, although what is sure to be debated as a matter of personal privacy, as the conduit through which every aspect of your life flows, your device will be able to tailor your experiences and entertainment to be as relevant and beneficial to you as if you had spent a great deal of time choosing them on your own, thus improving your personal efficiency, and leading to more experiences, greater learning and an increased enjoyment of life overall.

At least in theory.

Are there dangers in putting all of ones eggs in such a basket? Of course there are, but you place your life in danger every time you get behind the wheel of a car with the full acceptance and knowledge of that fact simply because you wish to get places faster.

This is no different. The potential for catastrophic personal data loss, such as your ‘Great American Novel’, or all of your children’s baby pictures, exists just as much in the ‘cloud’ as in your current collection of mobile phones, desktop computers and laptops.

Companies such as Google will know more about you than you will, although the benefits of that ‘human record’ can certainly be argued to be greater in not only leaving a personal legacy, but to advancing society-at-large – if the information is handled responsibly, and not abused for mere financial profit.

Finally, heaven help you should your device be lost, malfunction or simply quit at an inconvenient time. One imagines that carrying a backup will be quite essential.

Or perhaps even two.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths is associate editor at The Scavenger.

Image: Produced by Melody Ayres-Griffiths with the assistance of CC-Attribution material by Diogo Martins.


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