Thursday, 18 October 2007

A Future for Symbian Smartphones

Come dream with me for a while. Dreaming about technology, especially when those dreams are firmly rooted in currently reality, is a truly helpful way to determine what trends and features are important to the big picture.

Imagine it's ten years in the future.

The mobile internet is a given, devices are tightly integrated, with precise positioning available, along with sophisticated mapping information, routing, and so forth. RFIDs (radio frequency IDs) abound, allowing RFID readers in smartphones to detect what is around them at any time. Business have moved much more of their catalogs online, encouraging richer consumer-level e-commerce.

But your smartphone is no longer the monolithic device we're used to. It's functionality has now spread much farther. Your watch alerts you, shows simple information (such as what this alert is about), and allows simple interaction (for example, accept, reject, or delay). Your headset now sits inside your ear, offering noise cancellation or transparency, depending on context, as well as voice recognition. Your glasses offer a large, high resolution heads-up display. A lightly textured piece of cloth on the side of your leg is pressure sensitive, allowing discrete, chorded input (pressing different combinations of fingers together to indicate a single letter). All of these are networked via a low-power personal area network (the descendant of Bluetooth) to the phone which you hardly ever take out of your pocket.

Your phone itself roams from network to network, using whatever resources are available to it at the time, depending on your preconfiguration. It has Terabytes of storage, a powerful CPU, and the various high-speed wireless data connections. But you rarely take it out of your pocket, except to take a high-resolution photo or video.

Imagine grocery shopping
It's grocery shopping time. Can't remember what to buy? A few quick commands brings up your phone's memory of the RFIDs it detected in the fridge that morning (you have an old fridge which isn't on the internet), your Food Management software compares that to your observed weekly requirements (the average of your requirements each week), and makes a tentative list.

As you walk through the supermarket shelves, the heads-up display brings up alerts when you approach items you want (as the phone detects their RFIDs), even showing you what they look like, and emphasizing if they're on sale (as specified in the stores online catalog).

While shopping, your list suddenly gets some urgent updates. Your spouse, Kris, has just added some triggered shopping requests for you, and since you're already in the shop, the trigger has added the items to your list. At the same time your watch buzzes subtly. A quick glance shows that those shopping items have a purpose: friends are coming to dinner in two hours, the recipe will take an hour to prepare (according to the online database it was snarfed from), and you're half an hour from home. Not much time to waste. You accept the alert.

Imagine travelling
As you leave the shop, pushing the trolley through the RFID reader, and typing your PIN in acceptance of the charge to your account (offered by your phone), your schedule suddenly changes, though you're not yet aware of it. Your friend's flight has been delayed and their phones have informed yours.

You become aware of the extra time you have when you walk past the newsagent, and a triggered event reminds you that you want to check out the range of birthday cards. Surprised, you actually look at your schedule, and note that the dinner has been delayed by half an hour. Still, you're not in the mood to look at cards, so you reject the suggestion and continue home.

On the way home you listen to the latest e-book on your phone, read out over the car's sound system. Close to home you need to make a detour to avoid an accident. The e-book is interrupted with a gentle request: "Jenny's going to be ready to go home from school in four minutes, the detour could go by the school, would you like to take her home with you?"

You query the system, "Where is Kris?" And it responds that your spouse is still at home.

You accept the opportunity to share journeys with your daughter, and stop at the school, listening to the e-book for the couple of minutes until Jenny gets into the car. Then on the way home you talk about your days. Waiting at a set of lights, Jenney unfolds her phone's display to show you a diagram she drew at school -- it's clarity of layout impresses you, although Jenny points out that it works even better on a display bigger than the unfolded A4 display of her phone.

At home
When you arrive home, your spouse asks you to prepare the dinner. You find the activity for cooking already tentatively in your schedule, with a link to the recipe. The cooking schedule is linked to the ETA for your friends, and needs to start soon (they travelled a little earlier than expected). So, you put away the food you don't need, and start cooking, following the instructions and pictures on your glass's heads-up display (even for things you don't need glasses for, the heads up display is so useful that you tend to use what used to be called "cosmetic spectacles", ie. glasses that have no corrective function).

While waiting for a particular stage you check out the afternoon's headlines (who wastes time sitting down to watch the news anymore?). As you approach the last stage, you see that your friends are scheduled to arrive in a few minutes, and so they do. You spend the rest of the evening happily offline, catching up. Your phone withholds all but emergency alerts (of which, thankfully, there are none).

How does it work?
This sort of scenario seems so much science-fiction to us, doesn't it? And yet there's not much there that current technology can't manage (the prevalence of RFIDs, the integration of data systems, and the more advanced interfaces to the phone are the major advances).

The point is that this seamless integration, of phone software and services with online services, and of phone hardware and systems with other interface systems, is the way that smartphones are heading.

For example, doing voice recognition in a headset has significant advantages in keeping personal area (or near field) communications to a minimum. Having glasses with heads-up displays capable of running substantial chunks of software has the same benefit, in addition to ensuring smooth animations without high network bandwidths or embarrassing dropouts.

Achieving this type of distributed, highly integrated software requires a system that is both a light user of resources (glasses have very little space or weight for CPUs and batteries, and native software, rather than resource-consuming software layers will be required) and able to be distributed (i.e. a microkernel based system with strong Inter Process Communications). That's Symbian (but not Windows or Linux).

And note what happens in the scenario: there is little need for a PC for most everyday tasks. Rather than desktop OS's scaling down, it seems likely to me that powerful device OS's will scale up.

Is this possible? Yes. Is it likely? Well, that depends on the vision of the handset and accessory manufacturers, operators, ISVs, and even retailers. Open interfaces are critical to this vision, and are the most likely thing to never come true.

Let's all hope that there are enough people with vision to help make this a reality.

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