Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Personal Device Convergence – Rise of the Superphone

In stark contrast to my assertion that the Internet of Things revolution is about to ignite, driven by hackers, I have long contended that we don’t actually need more than one or two personal information devices in our lives (I still expect the Internet of Things to be made up mostly of autonomous devices). Thus far my personal experience is suggesting that’s true.

I repeatedly try out new technologies that purportedly mean we should be having more devices, but keep coming back to a similar small number. I was one of the first people to have a personal digital assistant, back in the late ’90s – a Psion mini personal computer. It was great for someone as inherently disorganised as me. You might find that an odd statement from someone who is clearly reasonably successful, but note that I said, “inherently”. I am fastidiously organised, but that is not my natural inclination.

In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I fit the stereotype of someone who shows brilliance in certain highly specialised fields (business and technology) but utter ineptitude when it comes to things like remembering anything (peoples’ names/background, where I’m supposed to be, what I was supposed be doing), paying bills, buying food… suffice to say I learned early on to rely on technology to fill in those “blind spots”! One of the first programs I wrote for my BBC Master aged 10 in fact was a little personal organiser. When I graduated to Acorns I went even further and had quite an advanced application for my diary, todo list, notes etc.

The noughties’ convergence

Anyway, I digress. The Psion was good for those same basic functions, but I moved on to a Palm Pilot which, after a lot of fiddling about I was able to link up to my phone (a Nokia 6210) and get ‘Web access! not very good Web access, and in black and white, but still. I just about got email working on it too if I recall. The user-experience was a long way from what we take for granted today with our smart phones, but in many ways all that smart phones are is those two devices plus a GPS converged into one, slick device.

More recently tablets, another old concept done properly by the late genius Jobs, emerged into the light. Keen to stick to my guns and avoid device proliferation I tried out the new 5″ Dell Streak, one of the first “tablet-phone” hybrid attempts. My thinking was that I’d use it with a bluetooth headset to avoid looking like an idiot, Dom Jolly style with a brick to my ear, and that I’d use the larger screen to read articles and such. In reality it was just a bit too big and clunky and I did not find the larger screen all that important for the sort of reading I do on the road.

So, I went back to a trusty, fairly cheap HTC Desire S (mainly because it was white and silver – all my things are white, silver and blue!). It has performed admirably as both a phone in the traditional sense and a device for browsing New Scientist on the train.

What are tablets for?

I have ended up trying tablets though too. Computer Weekly kindly gave me an iPad 2 for being overall winner of their Social Media Champion award, but to be honest I didn’t know what it was for. I have a light-weight, highly portable all-purpose computing device in the form of my Mac Air (which lives in my handbag) that can do everything the iPad can do and more and better; both work and play.

Okay, the touch screen is cool, and yes tablets are preferable for reading, but that is just an ergonomic issue. What I actually want is a touch screen on my laptop and the ability to flip it over like some of the Windoze tablets, but with Apple’s finesse – not yet-another-device. Alternatively, just let me drive a super-light-weight screen device docked to my phone. Since it was going unloved I gave the iPad 2 to a friend as a birthday present.

Perhaps I was being too operating-system-specific though and what I really needed was an Android tablet to complement my Apple laptop. Got one, played with it a bit, could not see that it did anything that either my phone or laptop could not do and ended up giving it to another friend.

I was also bought a Kindle as a birthday present. I don’t use it for books since I prefer to buy them: I only read one at a time and generally only do so in bed or on holiday; I gain satisfaction from putting them on the book shelf when I’ve finished; and they are an excellent form of carbon sequestration if kept. I do, however, use it for reading The Economist, but that is all. Because I’m a bit irregular in my reading habits it keeps discharging and I’m now finding I tend to read The Economist more online. I think I’ll just pay for their app so I can read it on my phone when standing waiting for trains and such, like I do with New Scientist.

In case of breakage, assimilate function

I’ve started a new personal trend trying to take this concept further: assimilation on loss or breakage. My 3G USB dongle has not been working for about a month, but I’ve not missed it. Instead I’ve just been tethering my phone (setting it up as a mobile Wireless Access Point). I’ve actually been getting better service and it is handy for sharing my connection with my fiancée, especially when overseas since she doesn’t have a good roaming contract. So, bye bye USB dongle. Tethering is a bit brutal on battery life for the phone, but I just take a USB charger cable with me everywhere and power my phone from my laptop if it gets low. My laptop is my principal personal power storage device, used to charge other things (iPod, Kindle etc), but increasingly just my phone.

On one of those recent trips I dropped my iPod nano on the plane during take off and it slid away down the floor. Unfortunately whoever found it was not morally upstanding and I never recovered it, but that gave me the impetus to actually bother to crack the problem of using my mobile for music. It should be noted that I love MacOS and use iTunes for my music but dislike iPhones, preferring Android instead. I asked the Twitterverse and it answered: “PowerAmp and iSyncr‘. I purchased a 32GB microSD for my phone, installed the aforementioned packages, and now have my entire music collection on my phone which, it should be noted, did not fit on the 16GB iPod nano!

My device convergence utopia

In my utopian vision of future technology I see us all having just one device that we carry with us everywhere which combines the functions of personal data storage, compute, location, biometric authentication, basic input & output (touchscreen & voice recognition) and multi-band communications devices. It will be our personal super-computer – a superphone – and rather than lugging lots of different devices with similar information on (why do I need copies of the same stuff on my phone and my laptop?1) the other devices we will carry, if at all, will be input and output machines. This is already well within the realms of possibility; my next phone will have a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU, 1GB RAM and 64GB of storage – considerably more powerful than my laptop just a few years ago!

Scenario 1 – Work and play: At work, my superphone has taken the place of my laptop2. It interfaces directly with my keyboard and monitors. I take it with me when I go home and head up to my home office, continuing to work there with that screen and keyboard just as I do today with my laptop. Since I’m home it knows to interface with the home security system too. The house tells it someone is approaching – my superphone recognises them as my now wife, Izzy, home from work – I am duly notified. The intelligence to recognise my wife is exclusively embedded in my superphone and no other system. I tell it, verbally, to save all my work (automatically encrypted and backed up to the cloud too of course) and to activate the home cinema so that we can carry on watching the ultra-high-def 3D film that it recommended (and had already downloaded – I expect home broadband capacity to remain inadequate to real-time stream the latest generation of entertainment content for the forseeable future) for us last night.

Scenario 2 – Travelling light: I’m on the train on my way to a night out with friends and have a small bag just big enough for a few cards, lip stick, my superphone and a small rolled-up cylinder. I take it out and unfurl a screen woven from light emitting polymers (LEPs) which I flick onto the back of the seat in front. I take out my superphone and put it on the fold-down table. Being in the quiet coach I can’t use verbal instruction, so I tap it a couple of times, coaxing it to project an image of a keyboard onto the tabletop. It detects the LEP screen and since it has been jostled and it can detect other people it scans my iris with its ultra-high resolution camera to re-authenticate me. Using gestures about the virtual keyboard I navigate to my social media client of choice and start messaging other friends, encouraging them to come and join us.

Scenario 3 – Augmentation: It is several years in the future. Izzy and I are heli skiing. We’ve become really good and perhaps a bit over confident. We accidentally trigger a mini-avalanche. I’m okay but I can’t see Izzy. Rather than having to take out my personal transceiver, turn it to search mode and start using its clunky interface to try and find her, I merely need to speak loudly enough for my superphone to hear. Oh, any my superphone is no longer in a pocket – I’m wearing it on my face – it is my glasses/goggles3. It immediately: 1) transmits a distress call to the emergency services via a satellite uplink4 including our position, 2) connects to Izzy’s superphone-glasses, which in turn is linked to heart rate and breathing sensors, and 3) brings up an augmented reality (AR) overlay on my head up display (HUD)5 indicating her rough position and vital signs. Once I’ve dug her out I tell my superphone to switch the terrahertz ray band and feed its output directly to my AR HUD (again, I already ski with an HD camera strapped to my head). I’m now able to check her for internal bleeding and broken bones…

The list of possibilities goes on, but the point is that few of them require many devices – and none of them require more than one central compute/storage/comms device. There is enormous scope for device convergence and potentially great benefits aside from the obvious ones of cost and reduced environmental impact. Unfortunately, though, it is not in the interests of the consumer electronics companies to sell us fewer devices. I’m not pessimistic, however, since as we have seen in the last ten years or so there has been a steady trend of assimilating functions into what we now call smartphones.


  • 1. To those of you going, “Er, cloud?”, I think there will always be a need for local compute and storage, but that’s a topic for another post. 😉
  • 2. This is already posible with Android using a bluetooth keyboard and HDMI monitor – check out this video.
  • 3. Don’t believe me? Check out Google Glasses for a taste of what is coming, and if you have not already, read Halting State by Charles Stross– the most compelling vision of AR read to date!
  • 4. We already carry emergency satellite locator beacons (SPOTs) – no reason it should not be integrated into a phone.
  • 5. I already have a skiing HUD for speed/navigation etc.

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