Elgan: Making the phone-PC connection

Instead of just making cell phones, PC makers should make cell phones work better with PCs

It seems these days that every Tom, Dick and Harry — or more accurately, every Dell, Acer and Apple — wants to get into the cell phone/handset business.

Dell was rumored to be partnering with Google on a joint cell phone project, a rumor I correctly predicted was false. The PC maker was also rumored to be interested in buying Motorola. Despite the flimsy nature of the Dell handset rumors, the conventional wisdom is that the company may at some point enter the cell phone handset business.

Acer, the third biggest PC maker in the world, is in the process of buying E-Ten Information Systems Co., a company that makes, among other things, Windows Mobile-based cell phone handsets.

Apple, which originated as a computer hardware and software maker, rolled out the iPhone handset last year, after making it big in the media player market.

The handset market is already crowded with far too many phones. If the PC makers are really serious about entering the cell phone market with distinctive products people might actually want, why not improve cell phone "awareness" of computers, and vice versa?

Can't they all just get along?

While cell phone handset makers roll out more and more functionality for phones, users are becoming increasingly ambivalent about all this "function overload." The reason is that it can be such a pain in the neck for our phones to interact with our PCs. Synchronization, file transfer and backup and other functions between devices isn't ready for prime time on most platforms, so most people just don't bother.

Many phones can, and all phones should, serve as mobile broadband modems for laptops. Yet most users don't take advantage.

PCs would benefit greatly from awareness about the location of the user. Is she sitting in front of me? Is she out of the building? Imagine if your PC performed routine maintenance, or kicked into security mode when it knew you weren't around. Since we take them wherever we go, cell phones are ideal devices to inform our PCs whether we're in the room or not.

We like to set up our PCs just so, with color schemes and specific files and applications we like to use. Imagine if our phones could carry sets of configurations around and magically transform any PC we happen to be using into one set up just like the computer at home or in the office.

We work on documents, then go home and work on them some more. Why don't phones automatically carry the latest version and upload it to whichever PC we're using? Why do most of us still use e-mail for this?

The vision thing

Some visionaries are working on this problem.

One of the most interesting and promising projects in this area was developed by an unexpected source: The New York Times Co. The publishing company funds an R&D lab apparently. Two of its researchers, Michael Young and Nick Bilton, developed a technology concept called SHIFD.

The original vision of SHIFD involved the use of RFID chips embedded in cell phones. An RFID reader plugged into a PC informed SHIFD software that the user's cell phone was nearby. This was a wonderful vision and enabled all kinds of useful functions. While the new SHIFD prototype is free software only and enables you to drop content on the Internet and access it from any PC or your phone, the old version used the cell phone for location awareness. It was a superior vision that was abandoned because of a lack of hardware support.

Meanwhile, Gartner analysts Leslie Fiering and Neil MacDonald have written and spoken on a concept they call "Portable Personality Solutions."

The idea is that people interact with a limited number of elements while at their PCs — a smattering of documents, user data, configuration information, a few utilities and applications and so on — and that those items could be downloaded to a mobile device, then uploaded to any other computer the user interacts with.

So, for example, instead of syncing a laptop with your desktop and lugging the laptop around, that synchronization data would be automated and download to a mobile device. Later, when you arrive at your destination, you could sit down at a PC provided by, say, your hotel, and upload all your "stuff" and pick up with your work right where you left off. Fiering and MacDonald see the key benefit here as cost savings for companies, since they wouldn't have to buy so many laptops.

The problem with this vision is threefold. First, Fiering and MacDonald de-emphasize the one device everyone always carries — cell phones — in favor of dedicated flash storage thumb drives or media players. Second, they don't advocate or fully describe what I think would be the killer app for Portable Personality Solutions, which is automation over wireless. And finally, the benefit isn't lower costs, but higher productivity — if done right, Portable Personality Solutions could create a cost-justifiable reason for companies to upgrade to better laptops, not abandon them.

Instead of instituting policies where corporate employees are issued flash drives and instructed to download their personality profiles before traveling, I'd like to see a world where the PC is constantly downloading whatever the user is interacting with, along with configuration data, then offering to auto-upload it when the user sits at an arbitrary PC. Such a vision would actually benefit from the entry by PC makers into the handset business.

Your "personality" would always be with you in the cell phone and would be available on any other device, uploaded and downloaded wirelessly and automatically.

PC makers: If you're going to enter the cell phone business, what do you have to offer? Can you make a better phone than RIM or Nokia?

Why not drive innovation and standards in the industry to make RFID readers standard equipment on PCs, and RFID chips standard equipment in cell phones? Why not drive better wireless cell phone connectivity, applications that sync with cell phones and secure, user-updatable "personalities."

Why not give customers the functionality they want but don't have, rather than yet another cell phone?

Any company that makes both PCs and cell phone handsets is in an ideal position to provide a combined solution that uses the cell phone to make the PC better and the PC to make the cell phone better — and give users a reason to buy both.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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