Truly mobile computing

After pre-empting Apple's release of the iPhone by stating that I was not interested,last week I wrote that I would elucidate my stance on mobile phones. Here goes:

All I want a phone to do is make calls and send SMS messages - and even then I'm not terribly interested in the text messaging side of things.

However, as technology is constantly being frog-marched ever-forward what we have all ended up with are not mobile telephones, but tiny computers. Given this fact, why are we forced to use them how the manufacturers and telecommunications networks want us to? Why not unleash the power of these tiny computers and allow us to use them in conjunction with out home or work PCs?

The personal computer is a unique device in the history of technology in that it is designed without any specific purpose in mind. The days of computers being used solely - or even primarily - for actual computation are long behind us and the personal computer is now about as far from any other electronic device as could be imagined.

Why then, is the most ubiquitous form of mobile computer still looked upon as a phone with fancy bits added on?
My job involves a lot of not very exotic travel, mainly on trains and busses. It's tiring, it's not fun and, most of all, it is a voracious consumer of time that I could otherwise be using to work. Obviously then, it would make sense for me to be able to get some work done while I'm on the move and thereby allow myself some free time in the evenings.

Obviously I like this idea, so when I'm travelling I bring a laptop with me; a MacBook Pro. It's a very nice laptop, but I don't like using it on the move because it's quite bulky - as are all laptop computers. As I'm sure you all know, a 15-inch MacBook Pro is not the smallest computer in the world so, of course, I could have bought a smaller machine, better suited to travel. Having worked in design I've got used to having a decent screen resolution - at least on what is my primary machine. But what if I could leave the Mac at home and use something else when I'm on the move? Something that was not only a phone but also a decent computer?

At present I own a Sony Ericsson v630i. I have no idea what CPU this phone uses but I would hazard a guess that it's at least in the 200MHz area - much more powerful than most of the computers that I've used during my lifetime.

Why, then, can I not plug in a little keyboard and screen into it and use it as a computer when I'm on the move? Word-processing and e-mail can't possibly require more power than a typical modern mobile phone can provide.

Today's computers are wildly over-powered by any measurable standard. Two and three gigahertz PC? Come on. Unless you're messing around with enormous media files, there is no reason for such a machine.

Those CPU cycles - and the RAM and disk space - are all consumed by bloated operating systems, spaghetti code, unnecessary special effects and heaven knows what else. This is why a useful, tiny computer is a good idea - the vast majority of what we actually do on computers does not require greater calculation power today than it did a decade ago so let the mobile phone do it.

The objections to what I am proposing are obvious:

We'll ignore the manufacturers wanting to flog us ever-more powerful (and expensive) hardware and the mobile phone networks enjoying endless price-gouging by locking their systems down. I am not writing this with corporate profits in mind.

Then there's the, ahem, "generous" subsidies on mobile phones given by the telephone networks. Forget about them. I'll pay outright for a true general-purpose device.

Security concerns? Rubbish. Lock the phone functionality away in firmware that is entirely unrelated to the computer-phone's other uses.

There is one rather more serious potential objection, though: many users - most, I'm sure - enjoy having powerful computers and would laugh at a 200 MHz PC-phone. That's OK. I'm not proposing them as a replacement for desktop computers and workstations but as a supplementary device - even, in my case, as a replacement for laptop computers.
At work and at home I will, no doubt, be seduced by newer and better computers but I still want a tiny machine that can double as a basic computer when I'm on the road, allowing me to send and receive e-mail, write, mess around with various documents and do most of the other things that I actually use a computer for.

Heavy-duty Photoshop-users can hold on to their huge Mac Pros - they need them. I don't.

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