INTRO VIDEOS CLOUD COMPUTING DIRECTORY GLOSSARY ABOUT THE AUTHOR PRESS CONTACT SITE MAP
A mobile computing device is effectively any computer not constrained in its location to a desktop or data centre. In recent years the variety of mobile computing devices available has rapidly increased. In doing so, it has also turned from theory to reality a trend for ubiquitous computing, whereby computers are all around us in the world, enabling access to digital content anytime, any place and anywhere.
MOBILE COMPUTING CATEGORIES
Mobile computers can usefully be divided into a number of categories. Firstly, many mobile computers are laptops -- or basically portable versions of desktop PCs, based around the same type of hardware, and capable of running the same software applications. Since late 2011, some very thin, light laptops that meet certain Intel specifications have started to be branded as ultrabooks.
A third category of mobile computers is the netbook. These are considerably smaller than most laptops, though usually capable of running the same or similar software as a laptop or desktop PC. Fourthly, we then have tablet computers -- such as the Apple iPad -- which are like a laptop or netbook computer but without the keyboard and operated via touchscreen. While some tablets run traditional desktop operating systems such as Windows 7, the vast majority are loaded with sleeker embedded operating system like Apple's iOS, or Google's Android. E-book readers are then a fifth category of mobile computer, and are effectively tablets dedicated to the presentation of electronic documents.
Decreasing in size, the sixth mobile computing category is smartphones -- which are mobile phones with Internet connectivity. Also of pocketable size we then have media players and mobile games consoles. Finally under mobile computing we may also include ambient computing devices that attempt to embed digital data into mobile computer hardware that operates at the edges of our perception.
A full discussion of every kind of device that could be considered a mobile computer is not just beyond the scope of this website, but would arguably serve little purpose. What follows is therefore a summary -- including specific, key product examples as appropriate -- of the aforementioned device categories and how they are likely to develop. Other good sources of information on mobile computing include suppliers Fused Mobility and Clove Technology. Indeed, a quick surf around these two websites can provide you with a very good idea of the vast range of mainstream mobile computing devices now available.
Whilst the term "mobile computer" is now sometimes only used to refer to a very small and even pocketable device, a laptop (or notebook) computer is still probably what many people may first picture when they think of a computer that is not rooted to a desk. In technology terms, laptops are basically desktop computers repackaged for portability. This means that they will almost always have either an Intel or AMD microprocessor (as found in desktop PCs and detailed on the hardware page), and will run a desktop operating system and applications (most obviously Windows with applications such as Microsoft Office).
Pretty much everything discussed on this site under hardware and software applies for laptop as well as desktop computing. Laptop processor speeds tend to be a little lower (to conserve battery life) and memory and hard disk capacities smaller (the latter because notebook computers use 2.5" or smaller hard drives, compared to the 3.5" units still usually found in most desktops).
Not that many years ago, when deciding between a desktop and a laptop PC there was a significant performance trade-off be weighed. Today, however, a typical laptop can be considered a direct replacement for a typical desktop PC. Laptop computers do cost more and can have keyboards and mouse-replacing touchpads that some people find difficult to use. However, except for activities such as intensive video editing and 3D rendering, there is nothing that now holds most laptops back. In particular, the widespread use of WiFi wireless networking now makes a laptop the computer of choice for many.
Laptop computers come in a range of sizes. At one end of the spectrum are machines with very large displays (19"+) that are more "transportable" than portable. At the other come far small devices with screens around 12" or less in diagonal, and which blur into our next mobile computing category of netbooks.
Ultrabooks are a new breed of stylish, lightweight laptop that may within a few years replace most larger and heavier models. To be called an ultrabook, a laptop has comply with a hardware specification laid down by Intel. This requires laptop manufacturers to shrink their computers to less than 21mm thick, to make them resume from sleep in just few seconds, to provide at least five hours of battery life, and to include anti-theft technology. Most ultrabooks also use a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a traditional, spinning hard disk, weigh not much more than a kilogram, and are housed in a designer casing made from a material such as an aluminium alloy or carbon fibre.
Although Intel came up with the ultrabook specification and is heavily marketing the brand, it is not going to manufacture ultrabooks itself. Rather, its intention is to try and ensure than a new generation of ultrathin, ultralight laptops from a wide range of other manufacturers will deliver a consistent user experience. The first ultrabooks were launched in late 2011, with first generation models including the Toshiba Z830, Lenovo U300s, Dell XPS 13, Asus Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3.
Netbooks (once known as ultramobiles or "UMPCs") are small, low-power laptops with typically a 9, 10 or 11 inch screen and a less-than-full-size keyboard. The first netbook was produced by Psion in 2000. However, the netbook market was only really kick-started by Asus in late 2007 when its launched the first of its expansive range of so-termed "Eee PCs". Early Eee PCs were intended for children and casual use around the home. However, not least due to their price tag (of between £170 to £300 depending on the model) Eee PCs created a new mass market. Indeed, in its first year (celebrated by this online birthday party) the Eee PC sold over a million units. Other manufacturers therefore had little choice but to enter the netbook market. They also had to match the Eee PC's price point despite the significant impact on their profit margins.
In 2009 netbooks accounted for about 20 per cent and rising of the laptop market, with revenue from netbook sales doubling to $11.7bn globally against a background of the continuing recession and stagnant desktop and laptop sales. However, today netbook sales are falling. In part this is because the market is saturated (there is very little reason for most people to ever upgrade a functioning netbook), but also because of the rise of tablets and more recently ultrabooks.
Most netbooks are based around Intel's low-power Atom microprocessor. This makes them very energy efficient, in turn extending battery life. It also means that netbooks are far more environmentally friendly than a traditional laptop or desktop computer, with a typical netbook burning 20-30 watts of power an hour, compared to the 60-75 watts of a typical laptop, or the 100-200+ watts of most desktop PCs.
The Eee PC and all early netbooks used a solid state drive rather than a traditional, spinning hard disk. Sadly this trend has diminished in recent years, with most netbooks now having a 2.5" spinning hard disk and as a consequence being far less physically robust. However, the launch of netbooks running Google Chrome OS (and known as "chromebooks") may perhaps see a return to solid-state-disk-based netbooks, as Google Chrome OS is intended only for solid-state drive netbooks and tablets.
For more information on netbooks (and to see an Eee PC 901 and an Acer Aspire One in action) you may want to watch my Explaining Ultramobile Computing video.
The launch of the much-hyped Apple iPad in January 2010 triggered a new plague of tablet fever across the computer industry. This had happened once before in November 2002 when Microsoft launched a TabletPC edition of Windows XP. At that time, many PC manufacturers -- including Toshia and Compaq -- built tablet PCs to the TabletPC specification. However, back in the early noughties tablets never really caught the public imagination.
A tablet is basically a laptop/ultrabook/netbook computer without a keyboard and operated with a touch screen. Back in the Microsoft TabletPC days, tablets were single-touch, operated with a stylus, and as large as most laptops. However, devices like the iPad are a whole new breed of far slimmer, lighter computers with multi-touch interfaces operated with your fingers. Whilst first-generation tablets were mainly intended to run locally-installed applications, this time around tablets are very much being heralded as cloud computing interface devices for accessing web media content and running downloaded apps and SaaS applications.
Apple's iPad is basically a very large iPod touch, and indeed runs the same iOS operating system and applications. In competition, veteran media player manufacturer Archos has also already got several very-stylish tablets on the market, such as its 10.1 Android Tablet. Also in strong competition are the Blackberry Playbook and the Eee Pad EP101 TC tablet from Asus amongst a host of others. Google has also indicated its intention to launch a tablet device that will run its Chrome operating system.
E-Book readers -- or just e-readers -- started to go mass-market in 2008 and 2009. In essense e-book readers are a form of tablet largely dedicated to the purchase, storage and presentation of books, newspapers and magazines. The biggest difference between most e-readers and other tablets is the use of an e-ink display as opposed to a "traditional" liquid crystal screen. These provide a paper-like reading experience due to their high contrast and resolution. E-ink screens are also very power efficient as current is only used to change rather than maintain the image. Given that the screen or page on an e-book reader is only turned/changed relatively infrequently, this allows many days and even weeks of reading from a single battery charge. If this is all sounding too good to be true, then you have to also note that at present e-ink screens are only available in black-and-white, and that the screen refresh rate is very low indeed. In other words, it takes a second or so to change the image on an e-ink screen. This is absolutely not a problem when reading an e-book. However, it becomes highly disadvantagous when scrolling around other forms of digital content, and makes watching video impossible.
Several e-book readers are now on the market. The most famous is the Kindle range from Amazon, and to which books are downloaded from Amazon wirelessly either via WiFi or over 3G using Amazon's "Whispernet". Most Kindle models can also read a book to you, play MP3 files, and include a basic web browser.
Until September 2011, all Kindle models had a black-and-white e-ink screen, with the Kindle 3 (now renamed the Kindle Keyboard) featuring a six inch display, able to hold about 3,500 books, and to run for up to one month on one battery charge. However, Amazon has now added the Kindle Fire to its growing Kindle range. This has a seven inch colour screen and runs a version of Google's Android operating system. Battery life is inevitably reduced -- to about 7.5 hours.
Amazon also offers Kindle for PC, Kindle for iPhone, Kindle for iPad, and Kindle for Android. These allow Kindle books to be read on all of these devices. The Kindle system cleverly keeps track of your library and reading across devices. This means that you can start reading a book on one device and when you switch to another you remain on the right page. Highlights or annotations made on a book on one device are also shared across others, which can be very useful when conducting research. In December 2010, Kindle e-books started to outsell traditional paperbacks on Amazon.com.
E-book readers are unlikely to ever replace traditional books. However, many commentators predict that e-book readers or tablets will change the face of newspaper, magazine and non-fiction publishing. Most newspaper publishers are now struggling financially in the face of free online content. Charging a subscription to have their publication delivered to an e-book reader may therefore be an attractive proposition. New opportunities are also likely to emerge to subscribe to only parts of publications -- such as the sports section of one newspaper and the arts and entertainment section of another.
Around 1999, Microsoft launched a technology platform called "Pocket PC" for small organizer-sized devices or PDAs (personal digital assistants) running what is now called the Windows Phone operating system and applications. However, developments in the mobile phone market kind of overtook PocketPC, with people more keen to carry one integrated digital device, rather than a separate mobile phone and pocket computer. Such integrated devices are now most commonly called smartphones, and provide Internet access on typically via a three-to-four inch touchscreen, in addition to text message, camera and voice call functionality. Examples of smartphones include Apple iPhones, as well as phones that run the Google Android or Windows Phone 7 Series operating systems.
It is getting increasingly difficult to categorize every kind of mobile computing device on the market. However, a final category can reasonably be identified to include the wide variety of music and video media players that are carried in many a pocket, as well as mobile games consoles. Some of these devices now also feature a web browser and Internet connectibity. Examples of media players include various models of Apple iPod, as well as devices from Creative and Sony. At present the most popular mobile games consoles are the various incarnations of the two-screen Nintendo DS, as well as the Play Station Portable or "PSP".
Laptops and netbooks, and to perhaps a lesser extent tablets, smartphones, media players and e-book readers, are all devices that most people would recognise as a mobile computer if they saw one. However, today computer processing power and wireless connectivity is increasingly also being integrated into devices that would in no reasonable context be recognisable as a computer. This leads us into the area of "ambient" mobile computing.
Whereas laptops, ultramobiles and their like enable people to compute ubiquitously -- ie anytime and anywhere -- what they also do is to demand and/or require a user's full attention. In contrast, ambient computing operates at the limits of our senses by utilising our pre-attentive processing abilities. Ambient computing is hence far less demanding and interruptive of other human activities. Or as AmbientDevices.com so nicely explain, ambient computing devices "elegantly embed digital information into the objects and environments that surround us". The explanations of ambient computing philosophy and science on the AmbientDevices.com website are also so effective that there is no point in me attempting an alternative coverage here.
Ambient technology can be built into a wide range of devices, not all of which have to be mobile. However, the concept is very nicely demonstrated by considering the Ambient Umbrella. This hangs next to your front door like any other umbrella, but also includes a handle that glows with a range of light patterns to warn of possible rain or snow, and hence the necessity to take it with you. Data is fed to the device wirelessly via a forecasting website, meaning that the device can be ignored completely by the user until it catches their attention when a storm may be brewing. Other devices from AmbientDevices.com include a frosted glass orb that can glow different colours to display real time data relating to anything from stock market trends to local traffic congestion, to electricity usage, to the pollen count.
MOBILE COMPUTING: CONCLUSIONS?
Any definition of just what constitutes a "mobile computer" inevitably remains both relative and subjective. For example, back in 1981 one of the very first portable computers was the Osborne 1. This weighed 11.8Kg, was larger than most modern desktop PCs, and only ran on mains power without an optional battery pack. At the other end of the scale, the Artigo Pico-ITX PC measures just 150mm x 110mm x 40mm, weigh only 520 grams, and yet is probably best categorised as very small desktop computer.
Mobile computing is probably an area best defined at any one point in time by those devices that are challenging paradigms and setting new consumer and business agendas. Right now this includes products like the Apple iPad and Amazon's Kindle, and many a trend-setting netbook or smartphone. Offerings such as the Ambient Umbrella may also make us think about what is possible, if not themselves being products that will ever go mass market.
Ultimately, whilst mobile computing is still barely out of its infancy, it is fairly certain to represent a large part of the future of computing development. Not least this is because desktop computers are now a relatively mature platform offering little scope for high-return market development for companies in the computing industry. The rising green computing agenda will also mean that desktop computers are replaced far less regularly, in turn making new mobile computing market opportunities even more attractive. Mobile computing also offers the potential for what Apple once called "computing for the rest of us" -- or in other words, computing for those people who do not spend their working day at a desk, and/or those who do not want to spend their leisure time slaved to a desktop PC.
Mobile computing can also perhaps even be considered as more "natural" than those location-dependent forms that have gone before. As seekers, consumers, processors, hoarders and communicators of information, every human being is already a form of mobile computer. Increasingly smart devices that can travel with us to help in such seeking, consuming, processing, hoarding and communicating will hence perhaps inevitably be very widely adopted as soon as they become technically and economically mass-viable. Indeed, one only has to look at the uptake of mobile phones to consider the potential.
The science fiction of the last decade contained a great many robots to walk beside us in servitude. However, we are perhaps far more likely to want to seek assistance from a small device that we can carry with us or find lying around the home or office than from a lumbering mechanical clone.
A mobile computing device is effectively any computer not constrained in its location to
a desktop or data centre.