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Ionic Column      in exile

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived, worked and played in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. He was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990. The Ionic Column has been going since early 1992. It even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, David Parry returns to Japan electronically via the Internet.

This month I will abandon the never-ending story, otherwise known as the care and feeding of my computers, to take a look at the topic of the month. Perhaps I am not the best person to pontificate about such matters, since I don't have a PDA or a Palmtop or an organizer or whatever. The smallest computer that I have is a laptop, unless you count mobile phones, and that is where I can start this month's column.

As I said just now, I do not use any of the very small computers. I don't want to dismiss them with the kind of withering scorn with which the MIS departments lording it over their "big iron" mainframes looked down their noses at the new arrivals, cheeping and beeping like newly-hatched chicks. (The PCs, not the computer jocks ... or decide for yourself.) A computer does not have to be a large box, nor indeed has that necessarily been the case--a large beige or gray case?--for over a decade. Quite apart from laptops, we should bear in mind that the "guts" of a PC are quite small, and getting smaller. The space hogs inside that big sheet metal case are the power supply and the whirling disk drives, which are physically the same size as before so as to fit into a 5.25" bay. Motherboards are getting smaller and cram in more circuitry; much of the real estate is actually taken up by the slots for add-on cards. Squeeze more facilities such as a graphics controller, SCSI controller, modem and sound card onto the mobo, and suddenly you don't need all those extra slots.

About a decade ago, in a previous incarnation as a sorely-taxed network engineer, I briefly worked with some "PCs" that were stripped down to a motherboard with inputs and outputs. These modules were intended to be stacked together to run multiple servers for the likes of Netware, or these days, Internet servers. The idea was to use a common keyboard and monitor, using a switcher such as my Raritan to select the PC that you wanted to use at the moment. There was also no hard disk as such, which made boot-up rather interesting. The process was theoretically simple, but more difficult in practice; a boot image file had to be produced and then stored on an EPROM, as I recall. Although programmable PROMS did not have such a large amount of memory in those days, it was more than adequate to hold the relatively small amount of information actually required to boot a PC and log into Netware. That at least made it clear to me that PCs did not need to be large.

The human touch
Now move on to the next decade/century/millennium--it is rare that one can use a throwaway line like that, and I cannot even begin to guess what the computing world will look like in a thousand years from now--and a look at mobile computing, in the broadest sense. We already had laptops by 1990, but I think that the big change in the last decade was the all-conquering march of mobile phones across the world. It is not just a matter of being able to place or receive a phone call almost anywhere, although the ad agencies delight in "bringing the human touch to technology" with a TV spot in which a wind-whipped mountaineer plodding upwards through the snow answers the insistent ringing of his phone to hear the first cries of his newborn baby - let's all go "aaaaah" in unison at this piece of unashamed tear-jerking.

Remote and exotic
Of course, my sceptical mind quickly wonders why a phone company shows such an example when my own mobile phone cuts out if I venture too far from town, and I don't regard a rural stretch of Westphalian autobahn as being unduly remote and exotic. The snowbound mountaineers could only have remained in contact with a GPS phone, using whatever Iridium got renamed to. Granted that I have heard numerous stories of mountaineers in the USA and the European Alps using their mobile phones to summon help, but only if the reception is good enough. My impression is that you need satellite contact if you want to make a call from a deep valley, unless the kindly phone company sticks up repeater sections in the remotest areas. And quite apart from the visual blight, Joe Public is not that happy at the prospect of a healthy dose of electro-smog from the neighboring rooftops as the UMTS transmitters sprout across the landscape like mushrooms after the rain.

Priced out of the market?
The other aspect of mobile telephony is that it has barely got started. Most of us still use mobile phones to keep in touch in the good old-fashioned way, by talking. My own phone has numerous features, most of which I have not bothered to figure out because I seldom if ever need them. All I use the phone for is the occasional voice call, and as short as possible in view of the costs. And there's the rub, since the prices have more or less stabilized again after the price wars in the late nineties. These days I get the impression of a cartel rather than a bunch of cut-throat competitors, and at the same time it seems that the main players have exhausted themselves financially in buying up the UMTS licenses so they cannot and will not reduce prices. The disparity between mobile and landline telephony costs means that I will only use a mobile phone as briefly and as rarely as possible. I suppose that the phone companies make their big bucks from teenagers gabbing breathlessly by the hour, but even that sort of usage pales by comparison with the income from data-based calls and surfing by the hour or mega-downloads. That includes the Internet, of course, but also the use of information services such as car navigation. And in future, an increasing amount of video and music.

However, the billing picture will change when UMTS comes in. The phone is connected permanently, rather like ADSL, so you are only billed for the amount of data transferred. I have seen UMTS phones, which are clearly intended to be used as mobile information centers rather than just a means of telling your parents/friends/significant other that you are currently at X and will be home by Y, since they have bigger screens and a more comprehensive keypad. My comments from last month's Ionic still apply here concerning the ergonomics of the hardware, but I will try to make some general comments about future trends.

These days most PCs have a modem connection, in the broadest sense, so that they get onto the Internet or into something like AOL. Years ago I remember a company called Rolm that specialized in PBX (telephone exchange equipment at the office level) was producing a PC with additional telephony capabilities. The details elude me due to the passage of time, and in any case developments have perhaps gone in a slightly different direction that Rolm expected, but these days computers often work as telephones. On the other hand, mobile telephones want to move up a level with UMTS and become miniature computers. The problems are quite simple: size, ergonomics and battery life.

Yes Virginia, size matters. It is quite amusing to see "old" films of around a decade ago where someone whips out a mobile phone that looks like a WW2-era army walkie-talkie. Mobile phones today are ever so small and handy, so you can put one in your pocket. Or someone else can put it in his pocket, proving once again that technological progress is not entirely what one expected or wished. But whatever the future has to offer in terms of gadgets, they have to be small and light. Then again, anything that is small and light is easily lost. Lost and found offices around the world have bins full of mobile phones that got parted from their sorrowing former owners.

Mobile phones and computers have just two problems; input and output. Keypads and keyboards are relatively large and clumsy, but I do not see any alternative. Speech input is improving all the time, but it has its limitations. Perhaps we will end up carrying portable keyboards around? One example; a flexible membrane-type keyboard that can be rolled up. Two points come to mind; I assume that it has to be placed on a firm and relatively flat surface, and secondly, membrane keyboards to date have been truly horrible to type with. As for output, it is a question of either providing a large and bulky screen or of using some other technology such as glasses with a projected image apparently in front of your eyes. That might be better than using roll-up flexible screens, which I gather are being developed.

Up to a point, I welcome an integrated phone/PC, which is probably where some of the UMTS models will go. My guess is that a high-end UMTS phone will overlap with smaller laptops and palmtops, and the main differences will be in the overall size. A basic design problem is that the electronic circuitry can be made smaller and more features packed in, but mechanical components such as switches, controls and connectors can only be miniaturized so far. Even adding something like a keyboard connector or a USB port adds to the bulk. Perhaps the UMTS devices will remain display-only, with a screen that will require good eyesight. There are some very compact printers available, but they can only be made so small. The same applies to data storage. These devices will be able to hold a certain amount of data in flash memory, but truly permanent storage of large amounts of data requires a bulkier device. Also, to the best of my knowledge there is no provision in such phones for transferring data. I don't expect to see a floppy drive grafted on, so the alternative is something like a Memory Stick. That is of course the same problem that besets digital cameras.

The problem for the maker and the user will be to either combine all the functions in one unit, or whether the user gets tangled up in a rat's nest of cables with delicate connectors that are easily damaged. The mobile phone is an example. The basic unit has everything in one sleek package, but it gets more complicated if you want a "hands-free" function or an external microphone.

Battery life
Let's just say that you can never have too much power. More functions mean more circuitry, which in turn requires more juice. Another issue is purely financial: a mobile phone or a laptop with a dead battery is an expensive proposition. Usually it is not worthwhile trying to replace the battery on phones, since the cost is almost as much as a new phone. The same applies to laptops unless they are very new, since they depreciate in value so quickly, but battery prices have remained constant.

Local Bluetooth
One option is to split up their components. That could happen if projection-type glasses become widespread. It would be easy to incorporate them into a headset-type telephone, but for reasons of weight it might be necessary to carry one or two small packs in a pocket or on a belt. That might also tie in with the problem of radio emissions from mobile phones; perhaps an option would be to use a low-power Bluetooth link from the headset to the belt set, with the transmitter perhaps placed on your arm. Shades of Dick Tracy! There have been futuristic statements about "wearable" computers utilizing flexible components, which seem plausible enough. There are many more design options if the components do not need to be rigid. Mobile computing
Again, it would be nice to have a truly mobile computer that would have just the main CPU plus hard disk storage--and maybe CD-ROM as well--that could be carried around and docked into a station wherever you go. That would ensure that your data was safe and the programs set up exactly as you wanted, which is by no means the case when working on a borrowed PC or in an Internet café. As if you can find one when you need one, as Pat Hughes commented about his travels around the world. This is assuming a situation where computers are as plentiful and uncomplicated as, say, radio/CD players, where you could just plug in when visiting a friend or another office. That sort of setup would use an external power supply, both to save weight and to ensure that the system ran happily off the local juice. But judging by the problems I have had with Windows, and especially the recent travails with Windows 2000, that sort of thing won't be done with Windows anything. Perhaps BeOS, if it is as good as it is said to be? (He said desperately, hoping that one day somebody will devise a PC/operating system combination that can auto-detect its components with precision and reliability.) You could either tote your own keyboard around or else borrow one locally; this is one big argument for the traditional PC with its modular approach, whereas laptops restrict you to the keyboard that is built in unless you plug in an external one, as I do.

So now we are at the end of another Ionic Column. Next month I will probably have some comments on how things went with the new hardware when installing Windows 2000. If you missed my deathless prose online, let's just say that it was not at all easy getting Pegasus up and running, but it is working now. More next month.

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© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

June , 2002

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN