Handhelds for the Rest of Us?

Ok, it probably shouldn’t become part of my habits but this is another repost of a blog comment motivated by the OLPC XO.

This time, it’s a reply to Niti Bhan’s enthusiastic blogpost about the eeePC: Perspective 2.0: The little eeePC that could has become the real “iPod” of personal computing

This time, I’m heavily editing my comments. So it’s less of a repost than a new blogpost. In some ways, it’s partly a follow-up to my “Ultimate Handheld Device” post (which ended up focusing on spatial positioning).

Given the OLPC context, the angle here is, hopefully, a culturally aware version of “a handheld device for the rest of us.”

Here goes…

I think there’s room in the World for a device category more similar to handhelds than to subnotebooks. Let’s call it “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU). Something between a cellphone, a portable gaming console, a portable media player, and a personal digital assistant. Handheld devices exist which cover most of these features/applications, but I’m mostly using this categorization to think about the future of handhelds in a globalised World.

The “new” device category could serve as the inspiration for a follow-up to the OLPC project. One thing about which I keep thinking, in relation to the “OLPC” project, is that the ‘L’ part was too restrictive. Sure, laptops can be great tools for students, especially if these students are used to (or need to be trained in) working with and typing long-form text. But I don’t think that laptops represent the most “disruptive technology” around. If we think about their global penetration and widespread impact, cellphones are much closer to the leapfrog effect about which we all have been writing.

So, why not just talk about a cellphone or smartphone? Well, I’m trying to think both more broadly and more specifically. Cellphones are already helping people empower themselves. The next step might to add selected features which bring them closer to the OLPC dream. Also, since cellphones are widely distributed already, I think it’s important to think about devices which may complement cellphones. I have some ideas about non-handheld tools which could make cellphones even more relevant in people’s lives. But they will have to wait for another blogpost.

So, to put it simply, “handhelds for the rest of us” (HftRoU) are somewhere between the OLPC XO-1 and Apple’s original iPhone, in terms of features. In terms of prices, I dream that it could be closer to that of basic cellphones which are in the hands of so many people across the globe. I don’t know what that price may be but I heard things which sounded like a third of the price the OLPC originally had in mind (so, a sixth of the current price). Sure, it may take a while before such a low cost can be reached. But I actually don’t think we’re in a hurry.

I guess I’m just thinking of the electronics (and global) version of the Ford T. With more solidarity in mind. And cultural awareness.

Google’s Open Handset Alliance (OHA) may produce something more appropriate to “global contexts” than Apple’s iPhone. In comparison with Apple’s iPhone, devices developed by the OHA could be better adapted to the cultural, climatic, and economic conditions of those people who don’t have easy access to the kind of computers “we” take for granted. At the very least, the OHA has good representation on at least three continents and, like the old OLPC project, the OHA is officially dedicated to openness.

I actually care fairly little about which teams will develop devices in this category. In fact, I hope that new manufacturers will spring up in some local communities and that major manufacturers will pay attention.

I don’t care about who does it, I’m mostly interested in what the devices will make possible. Learning, broadly speaking. Communicating, in different ways. Empowering themselves, generally.

One thing I have in mind, and which deviates from the OLPC mission, is that there should be appropriate handheld devices for all age-ranges. I do understand the focus on 6-12 year-olds the old OLPC had. But I don’t think it’s very productive to only sell devices to that age-range. Especially not in those parts of the world (i.e., almost anywhere) where generation gaps don’t imply that children are isolated from adults. In fact, as an anthropologist, I react rather strongly to the thought that children should be the exclusive target of a project meant to empower people. But I digress, as always.

I don’t tend to be a feature-freak but I have been thinking about the main features the prototypical device in this category should have. It’s not a rigid set of guidelines. It’s just a way to think out loud about technology’s integration in human life.

The OS and GUI, which seem like major advantages of the eeePC, could certainly be of the mobile/handheld type instead of the desktop/laptop type. The usual suspects: Symbian, NewtonOS, Android, Zune, PalmOS, Cocoa Touch, embedded Linux, Playstation Portable, WindowsCE, and Nintendo DS. At a certain level of abstraction, there are so many commonalities between all of these that it doesn’t seem very efficient to invent a completely new GUI/OS “paradigm,” like OLPC’s Sugar was apparently trying to do.

The HftRoU require some form of networking or wireless connectivity feature. WiFi (802.11*), GSM, UMTS, WiMAX, Bluetooth… Doesn’t need to be extremely fast, but it should be flexible and it absolutely cannot be cost-prohibitive. IP might make much more sense than, say, SMS/MMS, but a lot can be done with any kind of data transmission between devices. XO-style mesh networking could be a very interesting option. As VoIP has proven, voice can efficiently be transmitted as data so “voice networks” aren’t necessary.

My sense is that a multitouch interface with an accelerometer would be extremely effective. Yes, I’m thinking of Apple’s Touch devices and MacBooks. As well as about the Microsoft Surface, and Jeff Han’s Perceptive Pixel. One thing all of these have shown is how “intuitive” it can be to interact with a machine using gestures. Haptic feedback could also be useful but I’m not convinced it’s “there yet.”

I’m really not sure a keyboard is very important. In fact, I think that keyboard-focused laptops and tablets are the wrong basis for thinking about “handhelds for the rest of us.” Bear in mind that I’m not thinking about devices for would-be office workers or even programmers. I’m thinking about the broadest user base you can imagine. “The Rest of Us” in the sense of, those not already using computers very directly. And that user base isn’t that invested in (or committed to) touch-typing. Even people who are very literate don’t tend to be extremely efficient typists. If we think about global literacy rates, typing might be one thing which needs to be leapfrogged. After all, a cellphone keypad can be quite effective in some hands and there are several other ways to input text, especially if typing isn’t too ingrained in you. Furthermore, keyboards aren’t that convenient in multilingual contexts (i.e., in most parts of the world). I say: avoid the keyboard altogether, make it available as an option, or use a virtual one. People will complain. But it’s a necessary step.

If the device is to be used for voice communication, some audio support is absolutely required. Even if voice communication isn’t part of it (and I’m not completely convinced it’s the one required feature), audio is very useful, IMHO (I’m an aural guy). In some parts of the world, speakers are much favoured over headphones or headsets. But I personally wish that at least some HftRoU could have external audio inputs/outputs. Maybe through USB or an iPod-style connector.

A voice interface would be fabulous, but there still seem to be technical issues with both speech recognition and speech synthesis. I used to work in that field and I keep dreaming, like Bill Gates and others do, that speech will finally take the world by storm. But maybe the time still hasn’t come.

It’s hard to tell what size the screen should be. There probably needs to be a range of devices with varying screen sizes. Apple’s Touch devices prove that you don’t need a very large screen to have an immersive experience. Maybe some HftRoU screens should in fact be larger than that of an iPhone or iPod touch. Especially if people are to read or write long-form text on them. Maybe the eeePC had it right. Especially if the devices’ form factor is more like a big handheld than like a small subnotebook (i.e., slimmer than an eeePC). One reason form factor matters, in my mind, is that it could make the devices “disappear.” That, and the difference between having a device on you (in your pocket) and carrying a bag with a device in it. Form factor was a big issue with my Newton MessagePad 130. As the OLPC XO showed, cost and power consumption are also important issues regarding screen size. I’d vote for a range of screens between 3.5 inch (iPhone) and 8.9 inch (eeePC 900) with a rather high resolution. A multitouch version of the XO’s screen could be a major contribution.

In terms of both audio and screen features, some consideration should be given to adaptive technologies. Most of us take for granted that “almost anyone” can hear and see. We usually don’t perceive major issues in the fact that “personal computing” typically focuses on visual and auditory stimuli. But if these devices truly are “for the rest of us,” they could help empower visually- or hearing-impaired individuals, who are often marginalized. This is especially relevant in the logic of humanitarianism.

HftRoU needs a much autonomy from a power source as possible. Both in terms of the number of hours devices can be operated without needing to be connected to a power source and in terms of flexibility in power sources. Power management is a major technological issue, with portable, handheld, and mobile devices. Engineers are hard at work, trying to find as many solutions to this issue as they can. This was, obviously, a major area of research for the OLPC. But I’m not even sure the solutions they have found are the only relevant ones for what I imagine HftRoU to be.

GPS could have interesting uses, but doesn’t seem very cost-effective. Other “wireless positioning systems” (à la Skyhook) might reprsent a more rational option. Still, I think positioning systems are one of the next big things. Not only for navigation or for location-based targeting. But for a set of “unintended uses” which are the hallmark of truly disruptive technology. I still remember an article (probably in the venerable Wired magazine) about the use of GPS/GIS for research into climate change. Such “unintended uses” are, in my mind, much closer to the constructionist ideal than the OLPC XO’s unified design can ever get.

Though a camera seems to be a given in any portable or mobile device (even the OLPC XO has one), I’m not yet that clear on how important it really is. Sure, people like taking pictures or filming things. Yes, pictures taken through cellphones have had a lasting impact on social and cultural events. But I still get the feeling that the main reason cameras are included on so many devices is for impulse buying, not as a feature to be used so frequently by all users. Also, standalone cameras probably have a rather high level of penetration already and it might be best not to duplicate this type of feature. But, of course, a camera could easily be a differentiating factor between two devices in the same category. I don’t think that cameras should be absent from HftRoU. I just think it’s possible to have “killer apps” without cameras. Again, I’m biased.

Apart from networking/connectivity uses, Bluetooth seems like a luxury. Sure, it can be neat. But I don’t feel it adds that much functionality to HftRoU. Yet again, I could be proven wrong. Especially if networking and other inter-device communication are combined. At some abstract level, there isn’t that much difference between exchanging data across a network and controlling a device with another device.

Yes, I do realize I pretty much described an iPod touch (or an iPhone without camera, Bluetooth, or cellphone fees). I’ve been lusting over an iPod touch since September and it does colour my approach. I sincerely think the iPod touch could serve as an inspiration for a new device type. But, again, I care very little about which company makes that device. I don’t even care about how open the operating system is.

As long as our minds are open.

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