THE first PC arrived on my desk in 1987 and was quickly replaced by Apple SE just a year later. Two years on, it was augmented by an Apple Powerbook 140 that initiated my mobile life. This also demanded a large bag of tools, adapters, cables and extra batteries. In 1991 mobile working was in its infancy and hinged on ingenuity and the physical strength needed to lug more than four kilos of equipment from place to place.
And getting online in those early days was not easy. Most countries had hard-wired telephones sans connectors, so a screwdriver and alligator clips were essential tools of the mobile worker. Clipping on and dialling in to a dedicated modem in the same country was hard enough, but abroad it could involve a satellite link offering 350ms of delay. It was not unusual to have to dial in ten or 20 times in order to get a satisfactory connection at 1200bit/s and 2400bit/s if you were really lucky.
In public places, it was even harder until the analogue mobile phone arrived, along with the potential to get up to 9600bit/s. That was really motoring. But mobile standards differed from country to country and there was little or no chance of this experience abroad. The good news was that North America had RG11 connectors, but others migrated to a variety of connector designs and the only solution … was the big bag of adapters, wires, matchsticks and alligator clips.
Battery life was another challenge as were storage and processing power. Extra laptop batteries and external hard drives were essential. But technology pushed things along with digital mobiles, and the progressive eradication of IRdA ports, dial-up modems, floppy disks, CDs and DVDs, RG45 and more. Today, we connect by WiFi and BlueTooth; batteries are built in and offer ten hours’ continuous operation.
Perhaps best of all: USB sticks and clouds have dispensed with external hard drives and even more unwelcome weight. And with each tech cycle, our devices have become slimmer, lighter and more powerful and the need for desktop machines has waned – I haven’t owned one for ten-plus years.
Mobile working is now a lightweight norm, and our biggest irritation is one of ‘connecting’ to power. We are continually on a ‘socket hunt’, with a growing need to top up the batteries of our many devices. Mobility is no longer about dialling, logging on, doing a few tasks and logging off. It is now about being connected 24/7. We don’t even switch off our devices – why would we? All of this is exemplified by a reducing numbers of sockets and ports. Mobile phones and tablets have just one connector, and laptops are following suit – one do-it-all connector is all we need.
All connectivity is now predominantly wireless, and there is a hint that power could be next. WiPower is available, but it tends to fall far short of expectations. With charging inefficiencies at about 20%, it is not clear that it will ever become viable for our heavier devices. Mobile phones, perhaps, but the rest look to be unlikely. The trick has to be vastly more computing capability with far less power. In short: cloud computing and wireless micro-cells connecting devices over a few metres. But for that future, we need lots of bandwidth – symmetric bandwidth – but it looks to be a long way off as myopic telcos dedicate their investment to ancient copper technologies.
Of course, some of this story has more than a hint of déja vu. Church clocks, grandfather clocks, carriage clocks, fob watches, wrist watches – it looks to be a sequence we are reiterating. And right now we are at the carriage and fob watch stage, with tablet and laptop in our hands and mobile in our pockets. The question is: are we ready to transit to wearing our computing power, and are the interfaces and markets mature enough? It has all been feasible for 25 years, but the necessary infrastructures are still not in place, and it appears not to be socially acceptable or sufficiently seductive yet. But it will happen – we might even get there in my lifetime.
Peter Cohrane is an IT consultant and a former chief technology officer at BT