Modular Computing: the PC on a Stick

In the time since my last post, Apple has introduced two retina iPads and an iPad mini. There have also been a number of small portable computers entering the market. The Raspberry Pi, for example, but also several ARM powered Android devices that plug into a television or monitor’s HDMI port. The PC on a stick. One of the newest iterations of these, the Dell Wyse Project Ophelia, is already being marketed as a device that lets the user connect to remote services. As one ZDnet commenter put it: “it’s the ultimate RDC – a pocket USB stick that turns any monitor into a zero-client RDC portal“.

The beauty of Android 4.x is its native support for keyboards and mice. I recently rooted my 1st gen Kindle Fire and installed Jelly Bean 4.2.1. I plugged in a USB OTG cable, connected it to a powered usb hub, and had a pseudo-laptop within a few seconds. Of course, Android is no Linux (regardless of the kernel) and is not optimized for desktop use. Or, to put it another way, the user interface more closely resembles a mobile phone, and carries with it all the associated benefits and/or drawbacks thereof.

This is a neat trick to pull off, but it’s still more cumbersome than a laptop. I can’t imaging throwing the Kindle Fire into my carry-on with a powered usb hub, keyboard and mouse. The geek factor is there, but it’s just not convenient or efficient. The Android stick pc’s solve part of the portability problem, but you’re still going to need that keyboard, mouse, and–big deal here–display. Plus you’re depending on your hotel or conference room to have an accessible hdmi-enabled display and reliable wifi. Neither of these things are a given.

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Future Shock

Okay, I have this overwhelming urge to write that I must indulge.

In 1998, when I was opening the Borders store in New Orleans, I told my trainees that within five years CD’s would become obsolete.  They would be replaced by solid state media.  I got it partially right.  I did not foresee the iPod, and at the time I was not familiar with mp3s.  CD’s still exist, but their sales have declined drastically over the last decade or so.  The original iPod had a hard drive, and even though there were some flash memory-based mp3 players on the market the iPod worked well and stored a lot more music.  It would be almost four years before Apple released the Shuffle, followed a few months later by the Nano.  The album, as an individual artifact, became less and less relevant as consumers shifted toward a song and playlist-based means of organizing and listening to their music.

For a few years now I have mulled over the changes in computers.  Someone once asked me what would supersede the Pentium processor now that clock speeds had leveled off.  “Multiple cores,” was my reply.  Now we have dual-core mobile phones running at clock speeds that best my first four computers combined, and four-core phones are forthcoming (if they have not already hit the market).  That I did not predict.  Granted it is all part of a larger push for increasing revenue and getting consumers to buy a new phone as often as their wallets will allow, but it is still indicative of things to come and I feel like exercising my prognostication skills.¹

The size and portability of mobile phones lends their design to modularity.  I think the mobile phone, or something very much like it (i.e. iPod touch, Nokia N800, etc.) will become the central hub of our computing lives, and I mean that rather literally.  With enough processing and graphics power, the mobile phone will take advantage of keyboards, mice/touchpads and external monitors, essentially becoming the home computer. Untether it from these accessories and it reverts to its smartphone persona, still carrying its user’s preferences, data and programs. If it is a work phone, it gets plugged into a peripheral infrastructure² at the office, something like a laptop dock.

I think that for most users, this scenario will be more than adequate for day-to-day usage. They carry their computer around in their pocket, and when they need to type something quickly, or manipulate images on a larger screen, they will plug it into the dock. It could be almost any dock, too, and not just the ones at home or work. Internet cafes and libraries could offer docks for occasional or student use. The full-fledged desktop computer and laptop will still exist for those who really need or want them (me).

And then there is this idea of a “smart monitor” that I have been toying around with, and I am virtually certain that someone has already implemented the following scenario. If I went out right now and bought an iPad, a stand, a mac mini, a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, I could take it all home and within a few minutes have what amounts to a full-fledged system. Using remote desktop software like Splashtop, Screens or LogMeIn, my iPad would in fact serve more than adequately as my monitor. Gaming and watching smooth video might not be an option, but everything else that a desktop can do will be. SAS? Well, let me just fire up my Windows virtual machine and get to it.

The point of this thought exercise is that in the near future, the issues with latency that currently exist in my iPad/mac mini setup will simply not exist. I will be able to play first-person shooters with my keyboard and mouse, run Windows programs in a virtual machine, then take the iPad downstairs to browse IMDB while watching a movie. When a high-resolution iPad/tablet enters the market (and that is one prediction I am certain of), the need for an external monitor decreases somewhat. The iPad is already less expensive than many monitors, and for some consumers the price premium for the added portability and functionality will not be enough to stop them from making the leap. This kind of setup will not satisfy everyone, I know that. But for a large and possibly growing number of consumers it will.

¹ No, I cannot predict the future, nor am I foolish enough to believe that I can.

² Peripheral infrastructure? Where did I come up with that?

Blackberry duplicate calendar entries? Got Facebook 1.5 on your device?

The Facebook 1.5 app created a problem of duplicate calendar entries on my Blackberry.  I thought deleting the application would fix it (I don’t really use Facebook much anyway), and at first it seemed like it did.  But then more duplicate entries appeared.  When I examined them in detail, they would show up as Facebook calendar entries.  The link in the title shows what worked for me, post Facebook deletion:

If you want to totally delete the Facebook calendar then go into Options -> Advanced -> Service Books and delete Facebook [ICAL]

Many thanks to Crackberry forums user TheStoffer for this solution, for it seems to be working.