Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Perfect Phone

Note: I actually wrote this on the 7th of January, before Apple announced the iPhone. From what I've seen and read about the iPhone it seems like a step towards what I'm talking about.

I’ve been thinking about the problem surrounding PDAs. Every so often I experience something that leads me to think that maybe my enthusiastically techno-optimist outlook is, if not flawed, then at least misappropriated. There are several disadvantages of using a normal A7 paper notebook over a PDA:

  • You can drop a notebook in the sink and any information stored on it will still be accessible (after leaving it in the sun to dry – this can still apply to PDAs, but PDAs would generally be less likely to function after a good dunking).
  • Notebooks generally weigh less than PDAs.
  • Notebooks do not need recharging.
  • You can drop a notebook on the floor and not worry about it breaking.
  • Notebooks cost around £2. PDAs cost around £200.

Convergence is, I understand, the current big industry buzzword surrounding consumer electronics. It can, however, be argued that too much convergence leads to a giant Swiss Army Knife problem. Like most individuals with both chromasomes I enjoy the idea of owning a brick containing every possible tool I could ever possibly need, but I’m also aware that I wouldn’t want to carry it around with me.

Sure, it’s nice having a phone that can take pictures, send email, play movies, play music, access the web, send texts and make and receive phonecalls. But a Hack of all Trades can (at least for early adopters) prove to be annoyingly deficient in a way you really don’t want an object you just shelled out £200+ for to be. Things like the autofocus-lag on the 2 MP camera in my SE K750i, or the way the joystick gets clogged up with dust and works erratically.

Of course, I have the economics of consumer electronics to blame for these annoyances [anyone remember when 3G was going to be TNBT? Anyone remember minidisk players? Anyone remember bluray vs. HDDVD… Oh wait, that one hasn’t happened yet], companies are not going to invest in a piece of hardware that will last say, ten years, because they know that in ten years they will have a whole new range of phones to sell to people, and they don’t want people using the phone they bought ten years previously.

Just as the Israelites tired in the desert, so I’m tiring of pursuing the here-today, gone-tomorrow dreams of some white collar corporate sweatshop worker.

What I’m basically saying is that I’m annoyed that I have to swim through what could well be decades of projected-lifespan-six-months, NBTs that screw early adopters, screw everyone else, and become unfashionable just as the technology is perfected, before we get to the good stuff.

Here is a description of the things I want from the electronics industry (after reading it you’ll realise that by the time all of these things are available the electronics industry will either be non-existent or will have evolved into something completely different):

A mobile phone designed to operate well in any environment, and to continue to work without any need for a warranty (however this phone will be supplied with a warranty at least a decade long). This phone will not just be able to talk to other phones through a system of microwave-linked cellular towers but will be able to detect all electromagnetic radiation between say, 106 and 1016 Hz (a detachable aerial, would probably be required for anything much over 300 MHz), and carry enough processing clout to decode any and all intelligible signals on these frequencies. These signals may include audio, visual, audiovisual, text, still images, encoded software, anything. As much of the processing of this data as possible should be handled in software. Whether the signal is digital, analogue, FM, AM, or Morse code I want this device to be able to tell me what is being said.

The screen will have a definition such that the resolution of my own eyes will be insufficient to isolate a discrete pixel. The screen will be at least 40 mm by 60 mm in size, and the phone will be able to communicate with the surroundings as well (so screen size shouldn’t have to be an issue). The screen will be unscratchable, like the rest of the phone.

The phone will have two cameras that are fully detachable, and intelligent enough to combine to form a large baseline telescope. The cameras will be approximately the size of chart-pins, and will be stored in an isolated compartment within the main phone. There will also be a more standard camera built into the camera itself. This will have a fairly wide-angle camera capturing images at around 60 fps (for recording events to harvest for photographic still-shots later).

The phone will have a voice-activated (set to respond only to my voice-pattern, of course), thoroughly indexed, and wholly searchable encyclopedia, including the entire contents of the British library, the library of Congress, all available stored audiovisual output (i.e. everything ever written, recorded, filmed, or photographed).

In case I get bored with the phone’s fascia (I don’t know materials – some sort of carbon composite…?) the phone will be supplied with an autofabricator that can completely redesign the phone if I wish it to.

As well as maps and an on-board inertial-compass it will of course be able to consult any GPS systems that are available.

Spime, as I have mentioned before, is a powerful and worrying concept. I’m a bit too much of a libertarian (I’m not though) to find the idea of sentient armchairs and talking lamp-shades that remember life back in the CAD software anything but slightly worrying. However it would be nice if, occasionally, there were well-delineated bits of wall that could, if necessary, display text and video images at arbitrarily high definition if asked politely. These areas of wall would of course also be able to communicate with any hardware that happened to be in the vicinity, and would solve the problem of screen-size on mobile devices quite neatly, providing such areas of walls were sufficiently cheap and ubiquitous.

But why even go there? Instead of plastering every flat surface with mediaglyphs why not plaster ever eye-surface with a Head-Up-Display? This would solve the problem of wasting energy displaying data for all the world to see and offer a solution to the problem of viable virtual reality, or actual reality overlays. The contact-lens, or spectacle-based HUD would of course be available in a number of styles from your bedside autofab.

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