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The Wireless Edge: Ditching the Laptop

Symbian executives at the Symbian Smartphone Show in London last month spoke about the increasing role of smartphones, even suggesting that with the advances in smartphones, people may wonder soon why they need PCs at all. They pointed out that in developing countries where wireless penetration is far outpacing wireline penetration, a phone is a more logical connectivity appliance than a PC. The execs noted that in India the PC market is growing at 5 million units a year, while mobile phones are growing at that rate each month.

I think there is indeed a computing-paradigm shift happening, though I think we are at the earliest stages. With advances in computing power and storage, as well as high-speed wireless networks, it should be possible by the end of this decade to have a small handheld device that can run most of the applications you need, that can store much of the entertainment you care about--not just songs but full-length movies--and that has constant broadband connectivity. The only thing missing, and it's a big thing, is the user interface. Maybe by then we'll have retinal imaging and reliable voice input, though I'm skeptical. More likely we'll be able to easily dock our phones, perhaps using UWB, to conventional keyboards and displays in our homes, offices and maybe even hotels.

Certainly, we have hints of all these possibilities with current devices, applications and other innovations. Here are some of the developments that make it possible for many people, including me, to travel more often without a laptop on shorter trips. And as somebody who has taken a laptop everywhere for the last 15 years, this is a welcome change.

First is general ease of use. RIM recently introduced the BlackBerry Pearl, one of the easiest BlackBerries to use ever, especially with the new trackball. After using the device for some time, I have to admit that the trackball is the fastest and most effective navigation tool I've ever used on a phone. Traditional controls such as touchscreens and five-way navigation pads are also effective. The industry is still trying to innovate its way to efficient keyboards for small devices, but is doing reasonably well given the extremely limited real estate. However, let's face it, typing speeds on a phone are always going to be much slower than on a full-size keyboard. For data retrieval and e-mail monitoring with occasional short replies, though, I find either the fully micro-QWERTY or the RIM SureType keyboards just fine.

Another huge area of innovation is in applications. There is no shortage of effective wireless e-mail solutions. But not as well recognized necessarily is the improving ability to deal with documents. I've spent some time working with the just-released version 9 of Documents to Go from Dataviz, which allows users to work with Microsoft Office documents on Palm OS or Symbian devices. I have found the product flawless in my fairly limited use, allowing me to both view and edit documents. It can also view PDF documents. RIM's file viewers provide similar functionality; although they do not allow editing, they more than making up for it by allowing selective viewing of what might otherwise be files too large to download over a wireless connection. And of course, Windows Mobile has long touted its Office integration. Other types of applications are also making their way to mobile devices. Google, for example, just completed an excellent adaptation of Google Maps.

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