It Came Out of the Sky -- Danger, Opportunity, Form and Function

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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine

Writing is an odd, almost socially-unacceptable way to make a living.

It's a solitary pursuit, for the most part, so civilians -- which is to say "non-writers" -- tend to see only the end result and they remain largely ignorant of the process by which that product is created. For many of us, the gestation period is as important as -- arguably more important than -- the mere physical task of processing words, so much of our nominal workday consists of taking long walks, reading or simply staring off into space.

That's a tough idea for ordinary folks to accept. The notion that someone who is, to all appearances, simply goofing off can be hard at work is foreign to most people.

Blue-collar workers have a particularly difficult time wrapping their minds around it -- and there are a lot of blue collars here in Mariposa.

In my case, the problem of appearances is exacerbated by the fact that I am, by constitution, very much a night person. Where most humans are at their metabolic low point around 3:00am, I'm just hitting my peak, so that's when I tend to be most productive -- and consequently my business day usually ends just about the time everyone else is setting off for their places of work.

Thus, many of my neighbors doubtless think of me as a lazy bum who essentially gets paid for doing nothing -- at least nothing that they couldn't do equally well, if only they put their minds to it.

Which is not to say their impression is necessarily wrong -- but I'm pretty sure that they have no idea just how closely this writing stuff occasionally does resemble actual work. Take this very column, for example: I have, thus far, hammered out four complete -- and completely different -- ledes for the darned thing. Until I generated the one you're now reading, none of them turned out to be satisfactory enough for me to allow anyone to see it except yours truly.

The problem in each case has been that the transition from my opener to the actual topic of the piece simply didn't work for me. I've tried humor, pathos, non sequitur and anecdote -- and none of them did the trick. Every attempt has foundered on the rocky passage from appetizer to main course.

And it's not because I didn't have a topic in mind. In fact, I've known for a month now what I wanted to address in this column.

The Shape of Things to Come

Perhaps the best argument against the telecom industry's absurd faith in the El Dorado of 3G services is that cell phones -- at least in their familiar, present-day form -- are such a crappy way to deliver them.

Their screens are too small to do justice to streaming video and the other gee-whiz graphics that have come to characterize the Internet. Likewise, numeric keypads are a terrible way to input data. Any data.

And handwriting recognition, a la the Palm/Handspring galaxy of devices is too slow for data input.

That's why the RIM Blackberry found such an enthusiastic audience among the early adopters -- to paraphrase the 1992 Clinton campaign mantra, "It's the keyboard, stupid."

That same factor may help account for the resurgent popularity of palmtop computers, such as the Compaq iPAQ. (Although it's fair to say the greatly-enhanced functionality of Microsoft's Windows CE 3.0 has added a lot of value to those platforms that simply didn't exist in older, more limited versions.)

The main problem with those devices is that, small as they are, they're still just too large and heavy for the average consumer. According to the participants in a panel discussion on "The Future of Handsets and UI Design" at DEMOmobile 2001, surveys have repeatedly established that users are increasingly demanding slimmer, lighter phones with longer battery life.

They want phones that can be comfortably carried in a shirt or suit pocket, without causing unsightly sagging -- and palmtops just don't fill that bill.

What they're really looking for is a reasonable facsimily of a general-purpose computer that's as small and light as a modern cell phone, but that somehow also manages to offer a usable keyboard and a color graphics display -- one that's big enough to let them view the same Web pages that their tethered bretheren enjoy.

Which might be why the DEMOmobile panelists all seemed pretty enthusiastic about the demonstration that Danger, Inc. had given earlier in the day of their new "hiptop" platform.

In Spite of All the Danger

From the outside, Danger's prototype looks very much like any ordinary cell phone handset -- and a slightly chunky one, at that. In fact, for the first two minutes of Danger's Thursday morning presentation, CEO Andy Rubin left his demo unit firmly closed, while he talked about the firm's back-end-based active state session management to address the problem of intermittent connectivity -- a gutsy move, because exhibitors' on-stage demonstrations at DEMO shows are limited to a maximum of five minutes.

Rubin's sense of showmanship paid off handsomely, when -- midway through his demo -- he slid the device's 240 x 160-pixel color display up to reveal a full keyboard and mini-joystick concealed underneath.

As if seeing a particularly impressive star shell light up the sky at a fireworks exhibit, the assembled crowd of journalists, venture capitalists and industry analysts let out a collective "O-o-h-h-h!" of delight.

It's hard to tell how much of an impression Rubin's description of the Danger Hiptop's specifications -- they include 8 megabytes of RAM, a Java-based OS and both iRDA and USB data ports, plus a headset port that can also act as a digital camera input -- made on the gathering, but the attendees were all abuzz about that keyboard for the rest of the day.

Bring it on Home

So, will Danger's Hiptop redefine mobile computing and take over the wireless world?

Heck, I dunno.

Danger's managment has managed to attract $32 million in second-round financing in a market that Peter Ziebelman -- a financier himself -- has described as "the nuclear winter of venture capital." That has to count for something.

On the other hand, in order to make compelling business sense, Danger's technology pretty much requires that 3G systems be in place -- the advent of which seems more distant all the time. It also requires that users trust Danger to manage their data at a time when the ASP model has turned out to be a swift route to bankruptcy in the dotcom universe. And it will be up against the entrenched cellular handset vendors, who are notorious for their "not invented here" attitude toward outside technology.

One thing I do know -- regardless of whether Danger's technology succeeds or fails, something not unlike the Hiptop will ultimately have to replace the antiquated standard cell phone, if 3G is ever to become more than a telecom industry pipe dream. Like the Hiptop, whatever that device turns out to be will have to feature a color, graphics-capable display, a full alphanumeric keyboard and some kind of pointing device.

And all of that functionality absolutely must fit comfortably into a shirt pocket and run practically forever on one set of batteries. That's what users want -- and the customer is always right, especially in a global recession.

That Next Big Thing may or may not be a full-on, general-purpose computer in its own right, but, whether it runs Windows or Linux or Java programs, it will need some mechanism that lets it cope with intermittent connectivity. Danger's approach of keeping active session state information on the back end may well be the answer -- after all, server-based session managment is part and parcel of modern Web site design, so it's not exactly a new or revolutionary idea.

But it is a new application of an old -- "old" in Internet terms, that is -- concept. And that is the essence of invention.

I feel a certain kinship with the Hiptop, too. Like my work as a writer here in Mariposa, its appearance is deceiving -- there's a lot more going on than first meets the eye. And, like the lede to this column, it takes a different approach than you might expect. It breaks the rules to solve a problem that at first seems incapable of solution.

I am reminded that the I Ching employs the same ideogram for both danger and opportunity. That seems to me like a useful metaphor for a device that, like Alexander the Great, has ambitions to conquer the world.

Assuming, of course, that it stays around long enough, it just may succeed in that quest. Or, like Alexander's father, Phillip II, it may end up simply setting the stage for a conquest it will not live long enough to see happen.

Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens as we grope towards the first big computing paradigm shift of the 21st Century.


Research In Motion, Ltd.'s Blackberry Web site

Palm, Inc.'s Web site

Handspring, Inc.'s Web site

Compaq iPAQ family Web page

Microsoft Windows CE Web page

DEMOmobile's Web site

My developerWorks column about other issues raised by the DEMOmobile panel discussion

ArcStream Solutions' "Architecting the Mobile User Experience" white paper (in PDF format)

Danger, Inc.'s Flash 4 demo movie (Macromedia Flash version 4 required)

Jeff K. Wilson's mini-tutorial on Web session management and state maintenance

Kyle Brown, Rachel Reinitz and Skyler Thomas' overview of Web session state maintenance approaches

21st Century Internet Venture Partners Web site

. . .

A somewhat different version of this work was first published by IBM developerWorks at

(Copyright© 2002 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)