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Mobile hardware outpaces software, user capabilities

In a few short years, many consumers may never even use a PC

September 24, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mobile hardware is outpacing software capabilities and the mobile user experience, according to a panel of technologists at Technology Review's Emerging Technologies Conference held at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. Among those speaking was Rich Miner, group manager of mobile platforms at Google Inc., who said open operating systems -- like the one launched on Google's long-awaited G1 Android phone -- will drive future innovation, but much of it may be lost on the user in the short term.

"The easiest way to see this is ... about 80% of mobile phones have cameras in them today, yet if you were to ask how many people actually use those cameras (know how to get photos off of the phone), it's probably literally 10% to 15%," Miner said.

Miner spoke only a day after the debut of the G1 Android phone, a combination of technology from T-Mobile USA Inc., Google and HTC Corp. Much like Apple Inc.'s iPhone, with a touch-pad screen and GPS, the G1 Android adds a physical keyboard.

"[These phones] have the capabilities in terms of hardware and processing power and network connectivity that desktop computers had a few years ago. These devices clearly have desktop mobile computing capabilities but yet we're not using them this way," Miner said.

Elizabeth Altman, vice president of strategy and business development at Motorola Mobile Devices, said having more open operating systems on phones and lower prices for those phones will make it more interesting for developers to create more Android-style capabilities for midtier cellular phones. However, she added, "for good chunks of the world, in three to five years, Android probably won't be the operating system of choice because it just doesn't make sense economically."

Among the issues dissuading users from employing all the capabilities of their mobile devices is the complexity involved in operating them. Another obstacle is the traditional programming environments for mobile phones, which have been controlled by resellers and mobile phone carriers, and "neither of those groups is known for building brilliant software," Miner said.

But with the entrance of companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Google in the mobile platform market, a shift is coming. In a few years, a large contingent of consumers may not even use a PC, but instead perform all their Internet and communications applications on mobile devices, according to panelist Kevin Lynch, chief technology officer of the experience and technology group at Adobe.

Lynch said that many developers are also betting on Webkit, an open-source application framework, as the method for creating a foundation on which Web services can be delivered across platforms, be it Windows, Linux or Mac. Miner also said that larger, faster touch screens and better-designed keyboards, along with the use of conventional wireless networks and high-speed networks with contemporary Web browsers, will give users an experience very much like that of a desktop PC. "Not that that experience is the exact same one as you'd have on your desktop, but the browsers are becoming every bit as capable on mobile phones as the ones on your desktops," he said.

"All of these things are going to be important factors in realizing the mobile Internet which has eluded us," he added.

Read more about Mobile/Wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.

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