Mobile Mandelbrot - set in our ways?

The ever-decreasing circles of technology miniaturisation are not quite taking us down the roads followed by Star Trek or Dick Tracey. Sure we have the smart and small communicators and gadgets, and a cloud of networks and services, but we still rely on many old concepts. Tablets and smartphones are all well and good, but you still need a desktop or notebook PC to do real work – at least that’s what some say.

In that way of working, the devices keep shrinking, but they are always only ever seen as mobile companions reliant on a big fixed brother – once it was only handheld PDAs, then smartphones and tablets, but is now pushing all the way to the wearable edge with smart-watches and wristbands.

This idea of ‘iJewellery’ is not new – Dallas Semiconductor had finger wearable JavaRing computers based on its iButton technology in the late 1990s, and these could download and run ‘applets’ of Java software when briefly touched into a reader. In this way, they would communicate with and complement an application running on the device the reader was attached too (a laptop or desktop PC) and ultimately a server in the cloud (or as it was called in the 1990s, the network).

Whether tethered or wireless, this type of functionality is not really symbiotic, but more parasitic, in that the wearable device has little or no function on its own – it’s just a peripheral in the same way a Bluetooth audio headset typically has no standalone function.

Some more recent wearable technologies are peripherals too, but increasingly peripheral to the cloud, with over the air (OTA) connections for updates and data exchange. These include those wristbands increasingly worn by trendy types, and politicians, to measure their fitness (for health, not yet, for office). These are reliant on services in the network for the majority of storage and processing capability and also most likely reliant on other devices for taking a view of what information and insights have been gathered.

The evolution (note, not revolution) of the machine-to-machine (M2M) or badly termed ‘internet of things’ sector, links very closely with portable and wearable wireless devices. In all cases it is the gathering of data via some form of sensor that adds value and context to the personal or business process – location, proximity, energy usage, ambient conditions, user environment. These are especially important to the individual user if they make operation simpler, streamlining a process, such as automatically capturing data that might be needed later, or presenting information in a form that is most relevant at that moment.

Connecting this ‘personal cloud’ of data and devices into the larger cloud of available services is where things get interesting from a business process perspective but it introduces another overhyped expression de jour, ‘big data’. How big is often not nearly as important as how fast, how complete, how relevant and how directly usable. These are the areas that directly impact on business processes, yes causing some ‘re-engineering’ and change, but perhaps this time for the better. This is real work where mobile and wireless technology can deliver efficiency.

The current crop of operating systems on smartphones and tablets have already given up the need to be synchronised to a desktop which tethered their earlier cousins. This was the beginning of the end for the desktop (or laptop) as the most important computing device that everyone would aspire to. ‘Real work’ is already being done with mobile devices; sure it might not be lots of typing, but apart from certain types of roles (analysts included of course!), who really wants the typing of long documents to be their main contribution to their work? Do organisations not constantly say they want to minimise bureaucracy, or get rid of red tape and paperwork?

Business processes were set up to work with the constraints of the technology available; paper memos, typewriters, filing cabinets and in/out trays have gradually been replaced by desktop PCs, email and mass storage. We never really achieved the utopian paperless office, but there is no reason why we cannot with current smart, small and connected technologies achieve a ‘less paper’ office. Time to throw off the chains to the desk and join the ever smaller ‘Mandelbrot set’ of connected mobile devices. We might not ever give up the desktop, but many are very unlikely to spend as much time at it in the future as they did in the past.

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