The Age of Mobility

Remember this one?

Embracing the future, Mike goes mobile, as long as his wrists hold out.

More mobility. Must have maximum mobility.

The yoga’s helping, and of course the finger-stretching exercises, but despite all my efforts, the smaller joints are still a tad tight.

The more one embraces mobility—in the form of mobile phones, portable computers, sub-notebook computers, in-car computers, personal digital assistants, MP3 players, pagers, beepers, and other forms of pocket, lap, wrist, head-mounted, strap-on, wrap-around, and surgically implanted technology, the more need one has for mobility—in the form of flexible fingers, willing wrists, and forgiving forearms.

We are tearing headlong into a mobile computing future while leaving our wrists behind, a tortuous image for a torturous technological trend, and that doesn’t even touch on the psychic trauma.

Jacqueline Landman Gay first tagged deja vu as a repetitive motion injury, but I’ll take credit for first identifying the syndrome of psychotechnological whiplash, caused by being rear-ended by rapidly advancing technology.

Mobile computing in its many forms is careening out of control around the cloverleafs (cloverleaves?) of the information superhighway, shaking up the PC and Web development industries like tourists in the Space Needle during Seattle’s recent quake, and provoking even more far-flung figures of speech than these.

Mobile computing calls into question the venerable concept of the desktop personal computer, a concept on which rests an uneasy multi-billion-dollar industry. It raises daunting questions for Web developers, mostly along the lines of: how can I possibly design a reasonable Web page for display on a cell phone? (It would be prudent for us not to dwell here overlong on the fact that the original concept of HTML was that all pages should be display-size independent; it’ll only make us feel bad.) Plus, it gets you in the joints.

Even the language of mobility tests the tendons, although that’s a tendency it shares with pre-post-PC technology. One just gets the PC acronyms memorized and now there’s a whole new set of mobile acronyms. HTML, make way for WML; and wrist get ready to wrap around WAP because acronyms, especially unfamiliar ones, twist the typing hands into painful poses.

Which I’m willing to put up with as part of the cost of the mobile experience. And boy do I want that mobile experience. I want to integrate my voice browsing and audio content aggregation with big honking alerts. I want roaming wireless access, instant connection with everything around me, I want BlueTooth on a BlackBerry. I want streaming video, streaming audio, streaming smells. Give me streaming pixels, unleash the streaming text.

I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade into your enfilade, cast your multidimensional browser spell my way, I promise to go multi-D. But do I go thence on Mike Rosen’s CubicEye browser, which displays five Web pages at a time on the inside walls of a virtual cube? Or do I ride the BroadPage browser, with its tabbed and tiled multi-pane views that let me juggle 100 Web pages at a time? Neither sounds like it would be much fun on a cell phone screen, though. I had a really twisted witticism to insert here about jugglers and flexible wrists, but my editor said it was too much of a stretch.

My desktop computer is a laptop, my LAN is wireless, my office roaming. I’m ripping my britches on the cusp of the curve, beyond the present reach of ergonomic design. And there’s the rub (on the heel of my left hand). The reams of recommendations on the proper position of the ergonomic desk, the shape of the ergonomic chair, the ergonomic posture, the ergonomic forearm angle, are all grist for the shredder when the computer sits on your lap. Time to revive the child-care books? Probably not; not everything that sits on your lap deserves to be treated like a child, just as not everything that sits on that rickety table on the plane deserves to be treated like a barf bag.

Airlines aren’t going to be much help regarding the proper ergonomic placement of that laptop in flight, either: these are the same people who think that it’s perfectly all right to attach the table you eat from to another passenger’s tilt-back seat.

Yet we do more and more of our work in moving vehicles. Trains, planes, and automobiles are the offices of the Twenty-first Century. The offices of Century 21, especially: no realtor really needs to go into an office any more, and other professions are becoming similarly mobilized.

As are we all. I can hardly wait until I get one of inventor Dean Kamen’s revolutionary gyroscopically-stabilized scooters that are going to end pollution and postal worker disgruntlement in our time. We’ll all soon be able to get mobile without Mobil—or Chevron or BP—but Dean, where am I going to put my laptop?

(Enfilade? Obscure, I agree. It’s defined here.)

Reprinted from Dr. Dobb’s Journal.