Smartphones: The (perhaps unintended) realization of the past half century of consumer science fiction

I have
been using smartphones since I could afford them roughly seven years ago and
have been using PDAs since I was a nerd in high school in the late 90s but only
recently have I really had this moment of, "Wow, these are amazing devices that
are changing our culture and affording us remarkable convenience." I'm an early
adopter and have had virtually every iteration of smartphone from Handspring and
Palm's early offerings to their latest and hacked devices running all sorts of
things like variants of Linux (MeeGo, Android) and have owned two iPhones (hated
it, but I have a serious bias). I'm telling you this to frame what I'm saying:
today's smartphones with their elaborate sensors, powerful processors, high
resolution touch screens, simple applications and simple application
installation processes, and affordable (for many) prices are finally becoming
the true realization of personal devices that science fiction writers have been
dreaming about.


other words, smartphones are now something more meaningful than just some sort
of mashup between phone, computer, and camera - smartphones more closely
resemble Star Trek's tricorder, William Gibson's "Virtual Light" glasses, and
Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide" and babelfish. At some point in the past
year or two I feel that society reached an event horizon past the point of no
return with personal devices and technology. Businesses have been saying, "it's
only a matter of time" for longer than I can remember and the technology has
been around but Apple really brought it mainstream and has broken that personal
technology barrier for more than just early adopters.


you were a kid this was the future you read and dreamed about, isn't it," my
sister chirped to me as she pulled up directions to our cousin's house on her
Droid2 when we were in Las Vegas last Thanksgiving. She's in her early 30s and
this year became the first member of my family other than me to own a
smartphone.  I was mostly just surprised she had figured out how to pull up GPS
and directions on her device because I have seen her surf the web before.  At any
rate, I was even more surprised to see her go full MacGuyver with it and use a
flashlight app, check constellations using an augmented reality app, check movie
times and locations, and look up information on Wikipedia.  She is by no means a
power user but is doing things with her phone that were impossible with devices
from 18 months ago, and unthinkable in the 90s.


left me thinking, “How’d we get here again?”


PDAs and Pen Computers: Neat toys, but not life changing

the 90s, when I bought my first touch PDA, a US Robotics Pilot 5000, the
handwriting recognition blew my mind but it became quickly apparent to me that
the device did little more than a pocket notepad and Gameboy (and be a very
handy calendar).  The apps were cool and were available, but the device was
hardly connected (I couldn't afford the modem) and did very little more than
function as a cool way to take notes and play games on the go.  I dreamed of the
days when I could get something that was in color and could connect
to networks. I later had the fortune of getting a small Pen-based computing
device, the Dauphin DTR-1, that
could connect to networks and recognize handwriting (woah, it ran Windows?). 
Both devices were ahead of their time, and were never discussed outside circles
of nerdery so as to avoid getting really long stares.



PDAs and Single Purpose "Smart" phones: Phone,Camera, (Email, Music,

the time I had purchased my first PDA phone, a Handspring Treo around 2003-2004, computers
and the web had long since transformed business and connected apps that would do
things like check movie times and list local businesses were real and
available. I remember data being prohitively expensive however and very few
people used smartphones (or data for that matter). I didn't know it then, but
the smartphone was still adolescent in its role in society: people still didn't
adopt them because they were expensive and consumers didn't have a clue as to
what they would do with them.  Besides consumers not really having a rationale
for adopting smartphones and expensive data, phones lacked a killer app
and connected experiences.  The screens were black and white for many
smartphones stil at this time! *It could perhaps be referred to as a golden age
of battery life for this reason*  Blackberry saw the opportunity for the
business experience of Email and delivered it in this era of smartphone
evolution. The push-based service devices saw steady uptake for business users
who needed connected email and by the time BlackBerry introduced a phone they
had been proving themselves since the turn of the millennium as a pager devices
and services company.


From 2004
to 2007 the market for smartphones changed dramatically with two camps forming
the bulk of available phones in stores: those multimedia phones that were like
smartphones but were dead simple, attractive, and would poorly do things like
surf the web and multimedia smartphones that would surf the web and do email
really well but that were questionable in the phoning and texting department.  I
ended up with an Audiovox SMT 5600 by
2005 and again was blown away by the capabilities of my device thinking "What!! 
I can take pictures of stuff instead of writing them down now!" "Exchange Sync,
heck yes!"  Data became significantly cheaper in this time period and phones
also began bundling functionality that traditionally required another device
(Media player, email apps, camera, MySpace). This was the primetime for the
Blackberry Pearl and Sidekick, phones that were well positioned between both
camps.  Sony-Ericsson was starting their music phones and camera phones business
based on their Walkman and CyberShot brands.  Microsoft's phones in this era
were powered by CE 5 which still was obviously the grandchild of Windows CE but
that introduced technical competition to BlackBerry's push technology and
responded to the multimedia trends with Windows Media Player



Smartphones: Apple's iPhone, Droid, Palm's Reboot

shook up the market in the second week of 2007 when they brought in the
attractive and usable iPhone that gave customers the web surfing experience that
they didn't know they wanted on their phones and bundled it with another product
that Apple was dominating the market with, the iPod.  At the time, I was the
proud owner of a Sony-Ericsson W810,
perhaps my favorite phone of all time, and was holding out on the iPhone in the
hopes that we'd hear something from Microsoft about a multitouch phone. Later
this year, Google introduces Android, I buy, jailbreak, and ultimately sell my
first iPhone and use the W810 until I get a Motorola
, an HTC TouchPro,
and an HD2.  By
2008, Palm had been integrating Windows Mobile in their smartphone lineup and
has been secretly working on the Pre.  Rumors ran abound about secret multitouch
phones from Microsoft in this era but those didn't come from Microsoft until the
HTC HD2.  Although we didn't see any radical phones come from Microsoft at this
time, the time period heralded Microsoft's departure from the CE look/feel to
truly mobile / touch friendly UI in the subversions 6.5 and 6.5.3 of Mobile 6
which came out shortly after the iPhone was announced.  Windows Mobile 6.5.x has
spawned niche communities of diehard fans who continue to run it, tweak it into
custom builds, and alter the Windows Mobile
6.5.x UI


Stores:  Killing the sync story one install at a time

released their app store in 2008 which made it easy and convenient for users to
install third party software.  Android replicated this in their Marketplace just
in time for Halloween 2008.  By 2009 Microsoft had announced its app store, the
Windows Marketplace, and Palm announced and released its Pre before summer 2009
with its own store as well. Apple creates a stir by championing stories of
developers making money hand over fist in their market which has in the time
since created a virtual gold rush for mobile app developers.  The virtuous cycle
of consumer and producer is complete and by early 2010 there are real markets
with tens of thousands of applications in them available at the fingertips tens
of millions of mainstream consumers for purchase. Even more interestingly, the
tools for creating these apps have evolved over time to bring development to the
masses and the hardware that developers are targeting have modern sensors in
them (gyroscopes, compasses, GPS, ambient light, etc) making for interesting
ways these devices can be interacted with. At the end of last year, linguists
chose the word "app" as the word of the year because of it's dominance in
culture and media (marketing).


Now: Magic devices that are impossibly handy

try and summarize the generations of smart devices that have built up to where
we are:

  • Small
    devices that are a lot like computers
  • Small
    devices that are a lot like computers, that are also phones
  • Phone-like
    computing devices that do something (single task) really well and make them more
    appealing to some than just a phone would be
  • Phone-like
    computing devices that are very enticing to many, do many tasks very well, and
    that can easily be extended in functionality

phones, the ones that already do many things well and also have extensible
functionality that doesn't require a computer and that are highly personal
are the true smartphones. These can finally function as the "one device" that
you bring around that does everything that your portable devices did
before (your music player, phone, camera, and note-taker), can interact with
other devices, and they have the special ability to do whatever the developers
can come up with based on their extensible capabillties.  At this point, the
following things became real for the first time in mainstream

  • Augmented
  • Video
  • Live
    translation to/from phones of text, video, and audio

come a long way and it's taken a lot of generations of devices and technology to
reach here, but it has happened in a very short period of time. That said, the
tranformational forces of smartphones and smart devices will continue to evolve
rapidly and will go through significant jumps in the coming years where the
capabilities of these devices eclipse the limitations for what we can do with
them.  Manufacturers at CES this year demonstrated netbook-like performance from
smartphones, even smartphones that dock to screens and keyboards and function as



Next:  What happens now that phones are here to stay and are a growing

I had
another "wow" moment when listening to subscription music on my way to go
for a run I thought I'd check the app store for running apps. I ended
up installing a workout tracking app. While on my run (at night) it got too dark
so I used the flashlight feature of my phone to see.  After the run, the workout
tracker had recorded varying aspects of my workout over time such as average
running speed, elevation, pace, and so on. After my run I took a picture of
myself to motivate me to lose weight. I did this all for free with a single
device that cost me about the same as a mid-range media player did when I
started working at Microsoft.  That's a big change.  Which makes me believe that
there can be other big changes as a result of it.


example, more elaborate sensors could be placed into phones or accessories such
as the heart rate monitors you see on running machines and you could be able to
track even more aspects of your workout. Tracking all those variables of
workouts could bring world-class training and analysis to the masses, maybe even
virtual coaches that analyze the variables of your workout and give you a hard
time for slacking off.  If you're keeping / saving this data, how do you secure
your data, what do you do with all this data, how do you manage it over time,
and can you make smart decisions based on it?  Those tools (instrumentation,
data collection, data analysys) will be an important part of what's next and I'm
a huge fan of the scaffolding that Microsoft has for building those


at this point I'm definitely ranting.  The new smartphones are very different
from what was originally considered a smartphone and it's a pretty big deal. 
Perhaps this is me trying to give myself a wakeup call about this.





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