Mobile Computing on the Move for 2004

Mobile computing has come of age, and the next year should introduce myriad evolutionary steps that may redefine the core of the mobile market.

Two-thousand four will be a watershed year for the mobile worker. After a season of dramatic technological change, vendors of mobile systems are reaching a steady state. The new status quo will change dramatically in 2005, but 2004 should be relatively uneventful with regard to core technology.

However, dont write off 2004 as a non-event: We will see a slew of evolutionary changes and the emergence of two brand new PC platforms in the next 12 months—one entirely mobile, the other aimed at the desktop but with the potential to redefine mobile computing as we know it. Security will drift to center stage with some of the most dramatic changes, and as the second-generation tablet computers roll to market, well finally get a true sense of why most laptops will be tablets by the end of 2005. But thats next years column; here are the changes to expect in 2004:

Blade Computing
Seemingly a paradox, the first major change to mobile computing will be from blade servers. Expect this year the introduction, by a major OEM, of a wireless implementation of blade servers.

Consider what bladed servers have brought to desktop computing: dramatic improvements in reliability (even if you have a hard drive crash, a redundant blade steps in and your only down as long as it takes you to reboot); security (blessed by Homeland Security, there is no desktop platform more secure); noise (the desktop component has no moving parts); power (these use a fraction of the electricity used by PCs); and cost (full cost recovery for most will take less than a year). Now, think of what that would mean to your notebook or mobile-computing platform.

A wireless blade implementation would almost certainly eliminate the security and reliability concerns typically associated with a laptop computer. Granted, the first implementations will be only in offices or homes with high-bandwidth wireless networks. But as high-speed wireless proliferates over the coming years, we may reach a point where we neednt worry about the loss of a hard drive, updating a virus product, or migrating to a new piece of hardware. With a blade, those concerns are no longer the users.

Modular Computing
Ultra-small laptop computers that rival handheld systems in size but run full operating systems are finally on the horizon, led by two companies: Antelope Technologies has already started to ship, and OQO is expected to enter the market in the second half of 2004. If we were to tie these computers to blades on the back end, we would have a more-pervasive solution that would work where there isnt wireless and have a level of portability and reliability that we have never had in this market.

Tablet 2.0
The second generation of tablet computers will roll to market with much better battery life and a refreshed operating system. OS enhancements will include the ability to annotate directly in Word 2003, vastly improved handwriting recognition that pops up adjacent to where you actually want it to work, and a new set of industrial designs better tailored to users. These tablets will do a much better job of replacing the portfolios upon which so many of us depend.

Trusted Computing will expand to additional laptop configurations. Trusted Computing offers two key features: a vault in your laptop where you can put sensitive information secure in the knowledge that this information will be safe even if your laptop is physically deconstructed, and a facility that ensures that the server sending you code is actually a trusted server. Seen by IBM as critical for Linux, this enhancement has implications for the entire mobile market. In addition, we will see the proliferation of smart-card and biometric devices that will eventually replace passwords as the primary means of user authentication. The combination of these two technologies is expected to address much of the extreme security exposure enjoyed by laptop users today.

Wireless Handheld Computers
Research In Motion will get its first big wake-up call as Palm, HP, Toshiba, Sony and others begin to roll out products with similar capability largely using technology supplied by Good. With T-Mobiles aggressively priced data rates and the likelihood that Sprint, Verizon and AT&T will have to match these prices, wireless handheld computers should start to proliferate. With the Handspring 600 platform already blazing a trail, the emergence of more devices that do both phone and PDA functions is a given in 2004.

Not satisfied? Stay tuned for 2005 and a major platform change. I guess the old saw, "No rest for the wicked" is true; "wicked" is a word I can use to describe the next 12 to 24 months.


Read eWEEK Labs Analyst Anne Chens predictions for mobile computing in 2004.

Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.