The Future of Pocket Computing

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.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

34 thoughts on “The Future of Pocket Computing”

  1. I remember using the Nec original of the Tandy 100 in the late 80s. That was very barebones, but the Sinclair Z88 had too many issues IIRC. It was also quite big still, and required a huge cable (DB 25 ?) to move stuff back into the PC. Next step up was a Palm with a folding keyboard. That was a nice size, and the cable morphed to smaller then none (BT, wifi). Nothing much has happened since then except The Internet, melding the phone in, and Moore’s law.

    Voice input has been available for a LONG time. I remember buying Dragon Dictate (I think) in the early 90s, and being surprised at how well it worked for both commands and dictation. And then proceeding to never ever use it, because even in private talking to an object feels weird. Maybe we humans individually and society at large will adjust to that, eventually, or maybe the value will become worth the psychological effort (“You’re forgetting your keys !” would be a winner ).

    As for my smartphone being an all-purpose PC, I’m all for it especially over it being a dumb terminal forever dependent on a flaky data connection. And we’re mostly there, we’re only missing Entreprise apps and more I/O (I started lugging around a dock for my Samsung… too much bother).

  2. You’ve written about this concept several times before, and I still don’t see how it works outside of a world of elves and unicorns.

    Postulate that you require a large screen to be productive, but can carry all your work and all the CPU you will ever need in your pocket. So you have a phone that can automatically and wirelessly synch itself to large screens that you encounter in your travels, and present a large screen optimized interface on those screens.

    What happens when you arrive at your destination and discover that the large screen you were going to use to do your work on is broken? What happens when you discover that your pocket computer refuses to synch with any of the screens in the hotel where you are staying?* If your work involves enough typing that you require a physical keyboard to be fully productive, then the odds of your being able to get things done are halved, because even if the screen at any given location works, the keyboard could be broken, and vice versa.

    Basically your vision of the future requires a magical degree of uptime from all those public screens and public keyboards, or all those hotel “courtesy” screens and keyboards… In the real world, all those things are going to be broken or infected with malware or locked down “for security” in a way that makes it impossible for your phone to access them properly.

    The only way to *guarantee* that you will meet your deadlines while you are traveling will be to bring your own screen and your own keyboard along with you… in which case, you might as well just pack an ultralight laptop.

    * My spouse recently spent a week in hospital. The hospital’s free wifi was configured such that neither imessage nor email worked (I didn’t try 3rd party chat apps but suspect they would have been blocked too) — all you could do was surf a truncated version of the web as approved by the hospital’s agressive netnanny software, which basically blacklisted any site it hadn’t been told was OK — so numerous small sites that contained no adult content whatsoever were utterly inaccessible. And you had to accept the terms and conditions of use for the wifi *every single time* you unlocked your device. If public screens for doing stuff on a large screen with your pocket computer ever became a reality, they would be hopelessly crippled in that hospital.

    1. The screen and keyboard issue might be solved by VR: stick a 5.5″ phone to your face, it’s bigger than a 27″ monitor at arm’s length; and it could project a virtual keyboard + trackpad onto a table.
      As for netnannies… do they let VPNs through ? You can set up a VPN on a Raspberry Pi for $50: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-33548728

  3. Ergo Computing made such a computer in the early 90’s and it was even called “The Brick”. It is pretty much as you described except, obviously, it was not wireless. I found an InfoWorld ad from 1991: you could buy one with a 16 MHz 386SX, 4 MB RAM, 44 MB hard drive. 2400 baud modem and Windows 3.0 for the low, low price of just $2495. It weighed 8 pounds.

  4. Tandy, Epson and others had portable computers that weighed well under 5 pounds in the early to mid-1980s. More than 6 million of the 3-pound Tandy 100s were sold back then. Where were you at the time???

    Today, you can buy an Intel computer with a Core M CPU that’s half the size of a cell phone. It plugs into an HDMI port on a TV or monitor. You can use a foldable bluetooth keyboard with it. Plus, it can store over 300GB of files if you need that much storage. This whole setup starts at about $400 ($500 with Win 10). If an Atom CPU will suffice, it’s less than $200 with Win 10 and even less with Linux.

    I’m sorry to say that reality has overtaken your dreams of the future and left them in the dust.

    1. This. Plus to maximize portablity I’m using several small tablets (with Pushbullet for copying/pasting and a multi-homed BT keyboard to easily switch the keyboard between tablets) instead of a larger tablet or a monitor-dependent PC. I’m still looking for a multi-homed BT mouse though ;-p

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