The Future of Pocket Computing

on June 14, 2016

In 1989, eight years into my career as a tech industry analyst and, after hundreds of thousands of miles traveling, I was tired of lugging around huge laptops. My first portable was a luggable Compaq followed by Toshiba’s streamlined model in 1985. However, it took 20+ years for laptop makers to get portables under 5 pounds and only recently have laptops become even lighter.

During one of my trips in late 1989, I began to fantasize about a computing model that would make carrying a laptop with me everywhere unnecessary. I envisioned having what at the time I called a “Computing Brick” I could carry with me in my bag. It would allow me to connect to a screen of some type in hotels, on the back of plane seats, mounted on walls at home or dedicated monitors in the office. At each location, there would
be some type of connector and keyboard for input and, even back then, I felt it would need to have a wireless connection to the monitor and peripherals so I would not have to carry a lot of cords with me. The brick would have the CPU, OS, memory, storage and all of the relevant wireless connections so the only thing I would carry would be the brick itself and a cord to plug it into a power source.

When I first wrote about this in a UK-based publication that had an international audience in late 1989, I got emails from around the world asking how long before I thought we would see something like this or, in many cases, comments that I was delusional. But even those who thought my vision was crazy said this would be an ideal way to deliver a computing experience in the future.

Of course, the technology to deliver on this vision was not available then and, even today, there would need to be some other breakthroughs to make it work.

However, I believe a computing model of this nature is closer to becoming a reality if we look at a smartphone or, in this case, a pocket computer and see it as my “brick” idea with the right type of wireless connections and smart screens.

One of the more interesting visions of computing that somewhat encompasses this vision can be found in a video created by Corning called “A Day of Glass” in which all types of glass surfaces become touch screens for delivering info, data, video, and music. But as you look at this visionary view of computing, it is not clear to me where these glass screens and surfaces get their intelligence. Most of the screens in the video are flat surfaces used to display various forms of digital data. There does not seem any place to embed a CPU, storage, etc.

But imagine if a smartphone or a pocket computer could serve the role of being your own personal computer that has a CPU, OS, storage and the necessary wireless technology to display what it sees on any screen it comes in contact with. Using touch and voice for input and navigation, there would be no need for a keyboard at each screen as I originally envisioned. That would mean any smart screen can become your personal computing display.

While this idea may still be farfetched, I sense we may be moving in this direction. While some screens could become smarter, most will be dumb in the sense they just serve as displays. This will be especially true in many IoT devices. The cloud will become a powerful resource for tapping into stored data, information, and applications on an as-needed basis. But, we still have to have the computing power behind this to deliver these various bits of data, images, and video displayed on these screens.

Interestingly, mobile CPUs are already getting close to the same power levels we have in PCs today and there is a lot of work going on in wireless display connections that could very shortly power this vision. Yes, there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome for this to work seamlessly but, for the first time since I had this idea of a “computing brick”, I can actually see the technology being developed to deliver this vision. The age of pocket computing may become a reality before the end of this decade.