It’s good to talk

Make a list of the gadgets in your pocket and briefcase right now and what do you get? It’s a fair bet that it will include a mobile phone, an MP3 player/iPod, laptop PC, PDA or Blackberry, a mobile games console and Bluetooth headset.

Make a list of the gadgets in your pocket and briefcase right now and what do you get?

Obviously the answer will vary from person to person, but it’s a fair bet that it will include a fair smattering of the following: mobile phone, MP3 player/iPod, laptop PC, PDA/Blackberry, mobile games console and Bluetooth headset. In the case of some of us, quaintly enough, you could add a tiny medium wave radio to the roll call of devices.

What a cornucopia of tiny technological marvels, any one of which would have sent jaws dropping to the floor just 30 years ago – yes, even the radio, which would have been hailed as a miracle of miniaturisation.

There may be some people who enjoy carting around this many devices, feeding their voracious power demands and worrying about whether a missing gadget was left on the kitchen table or stolen on the 8.15 to Paddington.

Most of us, however, will probably find the whole business rather inconvenient, but can take comfort from the fact that we are probably living through something of a consumer device anomaly.

Thirty years ago, the sole electronic device in the average briefcase would have been a pocket calculator (itself a wonder of the age). In 30 years from now, by contrast, we may well look back in wonder at the time when we had to lug all those devices around to make voice calls, listen to music, access the internet, connect to our corporate networks, play games and listen to the radio.

It is likely that instead we will have just one device offering most or all the above, using a roll up keyboard and screen where necessary to replace the input and display functions of the laptop. It would be able to run on any or all of the wireless networking technologies; Wi-Fi, 3G (or 4G or 5G), Bluetooth, you name it, it will handle it.

Such a device presents prodigious engineering and technology challenges, but year by year the processing, storage, display, power and connectivity capabilities move one step more towards it.

This week’s giant consumer electronics exhibition Cebit in Hanover will offer a glimpse of this future. Expect smaller devices that can do more for longer periods of time at longer ranges.

The really interesting questions, however, will be answered not by the technology, but by us. As more options become available, will we want to take advantage of them? Or at least enough of us to make it worth doing. How will the gadget-makers, the networks upon which they operate and the providers of the content we access make any money? Is there, in short, a business here?

These questions are already familiar to the mobile phone networks which spent billions on the licences for 3G networks and are currently scratching their heads over how to recoup their investments. We just aren’t proving as receptive to video calling, picture messaging and games downloads as they expected.

Which means that – to the money-men, at least – it is our minds which need changing, not the devices in our pockets.

Andrew Lee
The Engineer Magazine & Online