At recent conferences, PDA makers and wireless phone vendors haveintroduced a bewildering array of small foot print computing andcommunications devices they are calling “converged multimedia” and”mobile TV” platforms. They combine elements of camera, cell phone,gaming device, music player, PDA and TV receiver into a singleunit with several dollops of WLAN via Bluetooth, IrDA, and 802.11thrown in for good measure.
These merged platforms typify what I have been talking about in thebroader context of the computer and communications market. With thecollision of these two previously stable, and predictable markets, theresult is a new chaotic state where platforms have to establish orreestablish themselves, and new connections between features,technology and market demands will have made, and sorted out, over andover again until stability sets in.
And considering the still evolving nature of wireless Internetconnections, the bandwidth and the reliability, Gene Frantz, TIPrincipal Fellow and business development manager, DSP in thesemiconductor group in Dallas, Texas, warns that that there is nocertainty that a market-wide standard platform will emerge.
“In such an environment, everyone's assumptions about the market maybe forced to change, drastically and radically, as the market takes asharp turn laterally,” he said. me. “For example, the improvements inbandwidth in wireless phone and WLAN devices seem to have led everyoneto assume there is a growing momentum toward one or more convergedwireless/PDA/media appliance platforms.”
But what is the ultimate impact of the truly revolutionary advancesin wireless bandwidth, reliability and always-on capabilities that arebeginning to match those of wired connections?
“With sufficiently high bandwidth and reliable connections, maybesome sets of functions could be better served, and would be moreupgradeable,” said Frantz, “if they were performed by a group ofwirelessly connected devices working together in direct peer-to-peerform, adapting, adding and subtracting peers as the environment inwhich the computing or communications is done changes.”
Frantz describes his job as being an expert in everything. In otherwords he must know enough about, or research different technology andmarket segments in enough depth, to “connect the dots,” and withreasonable certainty assess the nature of the interactions that areoccurring or might occur and how such factors would change thedirection the company might need to go.
“The fundamental uncertainty is that right now we do not know ifthings are converging to some well defined platforms or are thingsstill diverging,” he said, which is the nature of a unstable system.”Sometimes elements come together and remain so, others separateimmediately and still others seem to be linked but eventually divergeto look for more congenial joinings.”
Regardless of whether there will be a convergence or a divergence,said Frantz, there is one thing all of these devices will be — trulypersonal and intimate computing devices — and that alone will changecomputing.
“If you look at the history of computing as it has transitionedfrom one paradigm to the next, there has been one constant: computingdevices have gotten faster, smaller and lower in power, and as aresult, more personal, even intimate,” he said. “Look at the PDA: somepeople think of it as just another computing resource and others use itas the repository of a lot of personal information and personalservices specific to their needs and wants.”
Frantz then told me the story of a meeting with his division managerat TI where he had taken out his Palm Pilot and put it on the table infront of him in case he wanted to enter some notes. “At some pointduring the conference the manager reached over and started enteringnumbers on the keyboard,” he said. “I was surprised at the frown Iautomatically gave him, as if he were somehow violating my personalspace. He was: I viewed my PDA as a personal device and he saw it as acalculator.”
Ultimately it is this personal element, he believes, not thetechnology, that will dictate divergence or convergence of theseconnected personal computing appliance platforms. It is Frantz'personal view that with improved connectivity it is likely we will allbe host to a constellation of many extremely small dedicated computingdevices, each with its own particular functions, but which together insome sort of peer to peer manner will provide some other kind offunctionality.
“I don't think we will want a repeat of the PC, which did a lot ofthings sort of OK, but nothing really well,” he said. Rather we willhave several closely linked separate devices that are each very goodMP3 players, cell phones, PDAs, medical device, and so on, whichreflect our personal tastes and judgments, and whose relationship toone another may change as the environment we are in does: at home, inthe office, out for a walk, in the car.
“If that turns out to be the case, there is a new frontier ofconnectivity that will match the activity that is currently going on atthe 'last mile' at the network edge,” he said. “I call it the 'lastmeter' connection, the area just round us in our personal space.
“It will fundamentally change the equation relating to reliability,bandwidth, and security. If these are our personal computing devices,the level of security will probably have to be much higher than itpresently is, as will the level of reliability. Because we are so closeto an obvious heat source, the human body, maybe the power equationwill change. And with the devices so close together, maybe highbandwidth will not be the ultimate goal, replaced by much lower speedconnections that are always and constantly sending data and controlinformation back and forth.”
How do you think this new market is evolving? Is there indeed aconverged “hot app” device architecture emerging, or will furtherchanges in the reliability, security and performance of the wirelessInternet throw vendors another curve?