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Unfulfilled Promises

  • October 16 2003, 1:00am EDT

When someone is in need of a devil’s advocate to test an idea, I’m frequently offered the job. This is because many of my colleagues feel I’m a cynic even though I personally believe I’m more of a realist. Either way, I am definitely not the optimist with rose colored glasses that one would expect to see espousing the benefits of pervasive computing. Looking back on the pledges made in the pervasive computing realm, from wireless to handhelds and all points in between, one sees a field littered with unfulfilled promises. At first glance, one seems to see more cause for pessimism than optimism.

The promise of an always-on, everywhere computing environment with a completely wireless network still remains on the distant horizon. Yet, vendors continue to promote this vision, and many of us continue to buy into it. With each successive release of a product, we seemingly gain incremental ground. Although the promise remains out of reach and the benefits of the new and upgraded product, when listed dispassionately, sound suspiciously like a regurgitated benefit set from the previous version. In many of the facets of pervasive computing, we remain stuck at Gartner’s "Peak of Inflated Expectations."

Always On and Everywhere

The promise of remaining connected to the Internet regardless of location remains unfulfilled. Yes, significant strides are being made in wireless technologies, with advances in Wi-Fi and 3G wireless services, but the promise isn’t close to reality. Wi-Fi hotspots are proliferating, but they’re still isolated islands of connectivity. Creating an always-on connected world through Wi-Fi hot spots would be extremely tedious and cost prohibitive; akin to painting a mural on a wall one pixel at a time versus using cans of spray paint. 3G wireless services offer improved bandwidth over older alternatives but, given the lack of standardization among countries and service providers, its implementation will be far from pervasive and can be quite expensive given the realized bandwidth.

Handhelds that Don’t Fit in Your Hand

My Pocket PC appears to fit nicely in my hand. That is until I add the cradle, optional keyboard, battery charger and Wi-Fi adapter. When I travel, I can barely get all these components stuffed into my laptop carrying case, yet try and hold them all in my hand. And yes, I need to still need to carry both my laptop and my PDA. PDAs in their current incarnation continue to only meet part of the user’s needs.

The Ocean of Innovation

While clearly there is a plethora of unfulfilled promises that should make any potential customers pause, there is also cause for tremendous optimism. The key here is to be able to view these unfulfilled promises in the overall context of the ocean of innovation that they exist in. The number of broken promises is related not only to the number of companies issuing inflated and unrealistic expectations, but more importantly as a byproduct of the sheer amount of innovation currently taking place.

Even with the protracted economic downturn only beginning to turnaround, the total amount of innovation that continues to occur is daunting. Depending on how you look at it, we are either experiencing a plague of unfulfilled promises or an era of great experimentation. It took Orville and Wilbur Wright years of toil to achieve human flight, and it took the airline industry decades to come close to making it safe and efficient for the masses. Similarly, it will take the tech sector years to perfect their vision.

That’s fine if we have the luxury of waiting for a dream, but what if we’re in need of a practical solution now? There are important practical considerations that one must take when evaluating a potential emerging technology for themselves or their corporation.

Usability Life Span

First, it’s important to recognize the frenzied pace of innovation and the risk that comes with it. Moore’s Law may apply only to transistor density on integrated circuits, but there are similar although as yet unnamed laws that apply to many technologies. The average consumer upgrades their cell phone every year and a half and keeps a PDA less than three years. While the data is sparser, the life span of other emerging technologies such as Tablet PCs or WAP/Wireless Web and Bluetooth enabled devices realistically have life spans that are measured at best in only in a couple of years.

Pervasive Computing’s Limiting Factors

The "usability" life span of these devices is driven not by the product’s fragility, although battery life and the durability of the displays are a factor, but primarily by perceived advances as functionality innovations continue and newer models are released. Product upgrades continue at this furious pace not just out of a desire to sell more and more products, but out of continued attempts to address pervasive computing’s current limiting factors – those factors that are preventing the promises from being fulfilled. These limiting factors are:

  • User Interface – The interfaces of handheld devices whether it’s a cell phone, PDA or RIM device are too small and too tedious to use effectively.
  • Power Consumption – While advances in battery life have occurred, they have been almost completely offset with the increased power demand of color screens, Wi-Fi broadcasting,and audio/video streaming.
  • Bandwidth – Whether tethered or not, the demand for more bandwidth for richer content continues to outpace capacity. Do we will have a fiber optic glut? What happens if Napster wins or videos on demand take off?
  • Incomplete Feature Sets – Why is there a market for headsets, PDA keyboards, optional batteries and wireless cards? Because the feature set of their parent devices remains incomplete.

An excellent example of these limiting factors is the popular camera phone. Even more amazing than the fact it is a built-in camera, is the camera phone’s advances with the user interface (UI). The UI for many camera phones contain the equivalent of a PC mouse and a significantly improved menu and button interface compared to previous cell phone models.
The UI of a camera phone is a positive but still only incremental advance against one of pervasive computing’s limiting factors. Its ability to grow is further constrained by two of the other factors. Why are the camera phone’s pictures so grainy? Because their power consumption and bandwidth restrict their potential resolution. And why do camera phones even exist in the first place when for decades the promise has been video phones? For exactly the same reasons.

When to Invest

So do you buy now or wait? For consumer devices, the decision is based more on cultural trends and perceived need; but for corporations, however, it should be made on a dispassionate assessment of the technology’s ROI. When evaluating any emerging technology it is important to consider its usability life span . When upgrading to a newer model, you also need to quantify the true advances that particular model makes against the device’s current limiting factors. If the business justification for an upgrade begins to sound like a verbatim repeat of the original business justification used to obtain the prior model, then you have to seriously revisit the projected ROI and revise this estimate based on your current understanding.

While on the surface there does appear to be more cause for pessimism than optimism, the pessimism primarily exists when attempting to apply a long-term vision to short-term stride. When evaluating current advances in emerging technologies, it is important to objectively analyze their current capability, their capability to mitigate pervasive computing’s limiting factors and their realistic life span against the existing business drivers. If this can be done effectively, you won’t easily find yourself on the receiving end of an unfulfilled promise.

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