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Last Updated: Monday, 4 June 2007, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Glimpsing the mobile future
Do we need another object in our lives? asks Bill Thompson
What will tomorrow's mobile devices look like? asks Bill Thompson, and how useful will they be?

As a digital nomad of some years standing I've had a lot of opportunity to try out various mobile technologies that claim to make my life easier.

I've had phones, smartphones, PDAs, sub-notebooks, infra-red keyboards and various other devices, peripherals, gizmos and cool toys.

Many of them have come to me second-hand from my early adopter friend Simon, who seems to have an unerring ability to spot the hottest new gadget and a congenital inability to resist paying good money for unproven consumer electronics.

But I doubt even Simon will be rushing out to spend $500 on the latest offering from Palm, the Foleo. It is a strange hybrid, a Linux-based sub-notebook with a 10-inch display, a full-size keyboard and solid-state storage instead of a disk drive.

According to Palm it isn't a laptop or a PDA, it's a "companion device" for your Treo smartphone, linking seamlessly through Bluetooth and letting you type faster and see what you're doing more clearly than you can manage on the phone itself.

While some may see this as an acknowledgement that once the excitement of having a web-enabled phone passes most of us just find it irritating to have to work on such a small scale, Palm clearly sees it as the opportunity to sell us yet another piece of hardware.

Bill Thompson
Touch screens work well for larger devices or fixed displays, but I'm back with a proper number pad now and loving it

Even ignoring the unfortunate similarity between a "companion device" for your phone and the "companion animals" which help people cope with disabilities, the idea of having another device to lug around makes little sense.

And if you've got space for a kilo of Foleo, you've probably got space for a real laptop rather than this glorified add-on. Even the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet would do a decent job.

Palm may have created the PDA market with the Palm Pilot and followed it with the innovative Treo smartphone, but the Foleo seems unlikely to re-establish it as the innovative market leader it once was.

The Foleo is just another clamshell device with a rigid screen and a keyboard, a not-very-novel application of existing technologies that ignores the real innovations that are already affecting the mobile space.

The iPhone hopes to introduce a new way of using displays

We are on the cusp of a real transformation in the ways we interact with our computers, and I can't see the need for yet another cut-down laptop when new displays and input devices are being announced daily.

Touch sensitive displays are increasingly common, and multi-touch systems that let you make gestures and direct activities using several fingers at once will allow novel user interfaces for all sorts of devices. Not all of them will work, of course.

I suspect that Apple's iPhone, coming to market at the end of the month, will end up offering a fascinating insight into the conflicts created when the coolest looking technology turns out to be far less usable than it was supposed to be.

Having used a smartphone with a touchscreen for over a year, I can testify to the sheer irritation of having "keys" that offer no tactile feedback when you touch them and of trying to use a handheld device that forces you to stare closely at the screen whenever you're trying to do call a number or send a text.

Touch screens work well for larger devices or fixed displays, but I'm back with a proper number pad now and loving it. I suspect that many iPhone users will do the same.

Screens themselves are being transformed and flexible, full-colour displays are finally entering production.

Last week Sony demonstrated its new flexible screen technology, a wafer-thin colour display that may start out being used for moving adverts in magazines but could let us turn almost any surface into a screen.

Flexible screens

LG Philips and Universal Display Corporation have their own full-colour flexible screen, with a 320 by 240 pixel display, while Cambridge Display Technology continues to develop its own flexible screens based around polymer LEDs.

We're also seeing devices with new displays built in to them, like the Sony Reader, or the new Readius from Polymer Vision which has a screen that wraps around and unfolds to let you read from its greyscale display.

Researchers in the US have managed to solve one of the problems facing these displays, which is that while the displays themselves can be made transparent the electronics which control them are opaque.

We now have see-through transistors made with zinc oxide and indium oxide 'nanowires', making it possible to build displays into glasses or car windscreens.

As an alternative to better displays, phones may soon come with built-in high-intensity projectors. TI recently demonstrated a projector that can be used to watch movies or for reading documents without having to get out a magnifying glass.

While these new technologies will make their way into consumer devices in the next few years, for the moment the laptop, like the book, is more convenient and more usable than the alternatives.

We use other devices not because they are better but because they are smaller or lighter, because they offer simple connectivity when we are on the move, and of course because they consume less power and so have much longer battery life.

In the near future the compromises that have always faced the designers of mobile devices may no longer be necessary as new forms of display and new input technologies give designers more creative license.

The practice of architecture was completely transformed in the late twentieth century as new building materials made it possible for an architect to draw the most fantastic buildings and say 'build that', instead of having to work with the physical limitations of steel or concrete.

We may be on the verge of a similar transformation in the ways we design and build the many digital devices that we use in daily life.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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