7 Points
Category: Technology

One Device for Everything ... ?

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The One True Device

As a gadget-lover who juggles a few too many devices, I often have the familiar desire to use one device for all my needs.  I'd like to browse the web, read books, watch movies, write code, and take notes all on one device that I can take with me everywhere.  I know we're not there yet, but it doesn't stop me from spending far too much time trying to make it happen.  I've experimented with the Asus Transformer devices, I have a Chromebook, and I've even tried an SSH client on my phone hooked up to a remote server.  Every time I arrive at a half-baked solution that I use with great pain for a few weeks, and every time I go back to just lugging my MacBook around and keeping my eye on the nearest chair and power outlet.  I have recently come to the realization that we will never have one device to rule them all due to some inviolable facts about technology and the tech industry.

Our Best Shot

There are numerous high-profile companies putting a very admirable effort into blurring the lines between device form factors and giving us something that we can carry everywhere and use to do mostly everything.  Microsoft is the best example; the Windows 8.1 operating system runs across many devices and paradigms and gives us applications that really do run everywhere.  If you look at something like the Surface Pro or the Lenovo Thinkpad 8, they put Netflix and Excel on the same playing field and make the iPad or Nexus 7 look like a toy in comparison.  However these achievements come with sacrifices, the pure-tablet experience on these devices is inferior to iOS/Android, the pure desktop experience is inferior to any laptop, and the power requirements of a full desktop operating system negate much of the device's portability.

One of the most memorable 'moonshot' device in this category was the short-lived Ubuntu Edge concept.  This was to be a superphone with 4GB RAM, 128GB internal storage, LTE, 720p screen, modern processor, etc.  Of course this never came to be, and I think a lot of people doubted that Canonical's first effort at a smartphone could ever achieve all that they claimed.  Still, the excitement from the tech community was huge and it showed that there is a real hunger for such a device, just maybe not enough to produce $32M for an unproven product.

I imagine that over the next few years we will see the Surface 4 or some new device that inches even closer to the dream, but I'm confident that it will never happen in the way that Microsoft or Canonical imagines it.  There are fundamental technological barriers that will always leave such devices behind.

Mobile != Desktop

A mobile phone or tablet is not a small desktop computer, no matter how much we treat them as such.  They have a number of constraints that do not apply to the larger machines we use at home: price, power, size, and heat to name a few.  A smartphone must be < $1000, small enough to carry in a pocket, cool to the touch, and have 8+ hours of battery all while weighing only a few ounces.  A desktop computer, or even a laptop, can cost > $3000, run hot, require constant wall power, and weigh 10+ pounds all while remaining commercially viable.  And as long as we continue to work in offices that don't change these constraints, manufacturers will continue to produce super-powerful devices to fit them.  And as long as we continue to have access to such devices with exponentially more power than our mobile devices, we'll continue to write software to push them to the limit.  And as long as we write such software, mobile devices will be a step behind.

Consider the example of gaming.  My Android phone can comfortably emulate Playstation 2's blocky graphics or play Flappy Bird, but the Playstation 4 and Xbox One have dedicated hardware to produce crystal-clear graphics that would make my phone melt into a pile of black plastic before the splash screen came up.  The stay-at-home devices have far fewer constraints and will always be a few steps ahead.  And while 10 years ago you may have thought PS2 in your pocket would be the greatest thing gaming has ever seen and reduce the need for home consoles, the smart guys and girls at Sony/Microsoft will always be pushing the envelope to bring you something newer.   So 10 years from now, when you're playing Titanfall on the subway with your iPhone 11, you'll still fall back to your 8K TV and Playstation 7 or your monster gaming PC for "real" gaming when you get home.  The cycle never ends.

The One True Account

I hope I have convinced you that if we keep producing devices with our current mindset, we'll never have the mythical one device for everything in our jean pockets.  However that does not mean we can't have the one device experience, we just have to shift our mindset.  We think we have a hardware problem, but what we really have is an identity problem.  I don't actually want to plug my phone into my desktop monitor, I just want to turn on my desktop and pick up where I left off on my phone (and vice-versa).  With the advent of cloud technologies, that is a much less intimidating beast to slay.  The seeds of the revolution are already planted: with my Dropbox, Github, and Google accounts I can be fairly productive on any internet-connected machine with just a few minutes of setup.  If we could make this process more seamless, we'd have a real universal computing revolution.

What if you could define every last setting, configuration, and personalization in one global account?  What if just by signing into a new computer, you had your GMail logged in, your vimrc in the right place, and a cloud-backed drive mounted for you to begin working?  This is a three-part division of labor: the device has the processing power, the cloud has the data, and you have the configuration.  In the future we'll be able to blend these three seamlessly to give you the same experience everywhere.  No Ubuntu Edge and HDMI dock needed, no Surface or other hybrid device, just your password.  That's the real dream, and it's one we are already building.

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