Sometimes a multifunction device is a brilliant synthesis; sometimes its just a stupid hardware trick. The technical path of least resistance leads more often to the latter destination.
Integrating the functions of a PDA with those of a personal communicator is a good example of being technically clever but functionally silly.
Yes, it lets me consolidate multiple batteries, displays and keyboards.
Yes, I understand the value of having your address book and contact management tools coupled directly with the device that you use to make those contacts, and the combination demos as well: Your appointment calendar reminds you to make a scheduled telephone call, and the touch of a button looks up the partys number and starts the conversation.
What could be more obvious?
Well, what seems obvious to me is the awkward nonsense that comes next. Im on the phone with someone, discussing a current project or a future plan—but every time that I want to look at the contact history display to check a detail or make a note, I have to take the phone away from my ear and probably miss something that the other party was saying at that moment.
The functional combination is a terrific sprinter, getting quickly out of the starting gate of "Get me Mr. X on the phone right now," but it cant handle the marathon of a nontrivial discussion.
The notebook PC with wireless network connection is also a tempting hub for spokes of additional function. Its an e-mail checker, a document portfolio, a CD and DVD player, and a calendar management portal. Its only when a community has connectivity everywhere, though, that its likely to see an explosion in the actual value of having all those capabilities in hand throughout the day.
The campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has achieved its goal of Wi-Fi access everywhere, a few months ahead of its year-end 2005 target.
The campus-wide installation of Oracle Calendar, dubbed TechTime, already has about one-fifth of both the staff and the student communities as users.
Now that the institute advises all incoming freshmen to bring a Wi-Fi laptop rather than a desktop system, that percentage seems bound to rise. (Some of the other effects of campus connectivity at MIT are discussed in eWEEK Labs report from IT research and leading-edge application sites.)
What doesnt change with mere connectivity, though, is the nuisance of opening up a notebook PC and waking it from standby mode just to check a single datum or to read a brief urgent message.
At Microsofts Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles earlier this month, the company addressed that problem: Company reps showed a prototype of a new notebook PC configuration thats one of the targets for Windows SideShow, a piece of the new Windows platform thats included in the Beta 1 drop of Windows Vista.
A SideShow notebook, in addition to its regular display and keyboard, has a smaller screen on its outer case with minimal controls like those of a typical PDA—a four-way scrolling control, a menu button and a "do it" button—and it can keep that small, low-power display active all the time or wake it from standby mode in a fraction of the time required to wake up the main PC.
An application written to the Microsoft Gadgets specification (more at microsoftgadgets.com) might trigger an alert that appears on the auxiliary display, even if the PC itself is dormant.
The user might then have a range of options that runs from a simple "OK, I got it" response to a full PC wakeup for a multimedia conference.
This is multifunction integration that actually reflects some effort to look at how people use devices and do their jobs, and that gives application developers a task-shaped container into which they can pour new ideas.
Like "horseless carriage," a label such as "wireless PC" reflects a certain lack of imagination. It removes a limitation, but its not a conceptual breakthrough. Rethinking the platform is harder, but the benefits will be real.
Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.