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In the nearish future, your may find you desktop computer supplanted by your mobile phone. But it won’t be as nasty as it sounds. It has nothing to do with speed-thumb-typing or trying to browse the web on a display with cornea-busting low-res. In fact, it has the potential to take some pain out of computing without sacrificing the computing power you’ve grown accustomed to.

For years, segments of the computer community have been chattering about the imminent demise of the PC, to the glee of some and the loathing of others. While the general-purpose PC is capable of great flexibility and adaptability, its design tends to add complexity, confusion, and expense. A PC is almost always overkill for its intended user.

A chap named Philip Greenspun has taken an idea that was born in Japan, and expanded on it in some interesting ways. His idea is to develop the mobile phone into a more advanced computing device, which can dock into an “Appliance” that provides Internet connectivity, CPU horsepower, DVD drive, and a full-size display and keyboard. With this design, some data could live on an iPod-eque micro hard drive inside the phone, but much would be stored on remote servers, which recognize the user by reading identifying data from their mobile phone, and a user-entered PIN.

He also suggests a more friendly user interface, which centers on usability, abandoning the backwards approaches of modern OSes.

From the article:

Where is the evidence that there are a substantial number of consumers interested in a simpler way of computing? There are millions of Japanese consumers whose only home computing device is an iMode phone, providing them with text messaging, Web pages, and various social and commercial services. In the U.S. the best example of a successful simpler computing product is the Palm operating system. The Palm OS doesn’t hassle the user with “Do you want to save this file?” and “Which application would you like to run today?” You open a document, edit it, and close it when you’re done. If someone asks you “Which application did you use to edit that document?” you wouldn’t be able to say. Microsoft Outlook is another good example of simplified computing. Within Outlook there are tasks, notes, emails, calendar items, and contacts. A user can edit any of these without really thinking about “now I am in the special application that I use for editing tasks”. A user is not asked to confirm changes upon editing and then closing a note. Rather than being asked to create a folder hierarchy, a user can view notes by category, by creation date, or by “color”. All of these ways of organizing notes are available simultaneously.

In practical terms, the cell phone becomes the computer, and it can be docked into any “Appliance” one wishes. By itself the phone would be capable of running basic communications and organization apps, but docked into an Appliance, it could tap the more powerful CPU and video card, and run anything from office software to full-screen 3D games without breaking a sweat.

As neat as the idea is, it runs the risk of being exploited by Big Business to prevent us from using our computers to do things they don’t want us doing, such as pulling music from CDs, watching digital copies of TV shows, etc. While they’re slowly moving that direction with PCs anyway, a fundamental shift in computing would give them a convenient place to inject their poison. So, as is true with most technology, it would be much cooler if the assholes would butt out.

Philip Greenspun article

Updated October 4, 2005 @ 10:13 am: Clearly Google is in the forefront of the types of web-apps that would make a computer like this feasible… and this week, they appear to be taking a big step in that direction: A web-browser-based office suite.