Mobile Interfaces of Tomorrow
By Kevin Werbach, Mon Sep 04 00:00:00 GMT 2000

Every major development in communications technology has brought with it new services that weren't possible or imaginable before. Television is not simply radio with pictures, nor is the Internet merely television plus interactivity. Similarly, the emerging ecosystem around intelligent wireless devices represents more than just a mobile version of today's Internet.

Our expectations about the Internet are deeply tied to assumptions about what a computer is. Many of those notions no longer hold in the emerging world of ubiquitous computing. The key change is the introduction of a much fuller sense of context.

Most people today think about mobility as a new feature of the Internet rather than a new computing paradigm. Standards such as WAP and iMode allow Web-based content to be accessed through mobile devices, despite their limited input methods, bandwidth and screen sizes. It's true that the Internet is flexible enough to support devices other than desktop computers. However, the new context of mobile devices creates an environment for new applications and interfaces, which will inevitably change the user experience in important ways.

Emerging Mobile Applications

Voice portals such as Tellme and BeVocal offer a perfect example. Though these services are in their infancy, they already demonstrate how powerfully context influences applications. Imagine you're looking for a good Italian restaurant in a particular neighborhood. Online city guides as CitySearch and AOL's Digital Cities offer this information, but it's a different experience when you can find the restaurant (and directions) while standing, hungrily, on a street corner. It's one thing to see a phone number on your computer monitor; it's another to have a call automatically completed to the restaurant, so you can find out how long the wait will be when you arrive in five minutes.

Though useful, today's voice portals are limited because they work with voice-only mobile phones. Future services will take advantage of the enhanced processing, display and sensing capabilities of new mobile devices. They will display maps and text messages in conjunction with speech input and output. And using mechanisms such as the global positioning system (GPS), they will know where they are and tailor information accordingly. Walk into a supermarket...and see a shopping list on your first menu screen. Cross over an international border...and see currencies and other information change in response. Walk into the living room...and have your device turn into a remote control for your television and stereo system, with your personal programming choices automatically loaded.

Devices as Extensions of the Senses

Our brains construct our view of reality by combining information from the various senses. Similarly, mobile data services will take advantage of several interface modalities as appropriate to the task at hand. Speech is one such mechanism, text is another, and images are a third. Voice portals make use of advances in speech recognition and synthesis technology so that users can gain access to the richness of the Internet with no special input our output devices beyond a phone. But sometimes that's not the best option. If you're asking for directions while driving down the highway, speech makes the most sense, but if you’re standing in a crowded bar you might prefer to see the information displayed on a screen.

Looking to the future, services will likely employ a combination of interfaces. Many will rely on speech for input and text or images for output. Thanks to millions of years of evolution, language is an incredibly efficient way of describing concepts in context, without the need for keyboards or hierarchical menus of options. But for output, a picture often is in fact worth a thousand words. A map, for example, is usually the best way to grasp the route between two points. Developers of successful mobile data services and devices will understand these subtleties, and will create interfaces that feel natural to users.

Personal Computing Gets Personal

In other words, wireless Internet devices will be neither desktop computers scaled down nor mobile telephones scaled up; they will be people scaled out. They will help individuals and communities comprehend and interact with the world around them, using methods appropriate for the local context, much like our biological senses. At the same time, they will overcome some of our human limitations, such as our inability to communicate instantaneously over large distances.

Twenty years ago IBM introduced a machine it branded the PC, for personal computer. Others such as Apple had gotten there first, but IBM's endorsement validated the notion for the mass market. In reality, though, the PC wasn't - and isn't - a truly personal computer. A PC is a person's computer, in the sense that each individual can have his or her own. Yet each of those machines is virtually identical to any other. They don't fully reflect the personality and circumstances of their users, largely because they were designed to sit on a desk.

Wireless data networks promise to open up the era of truly personal computing, because finally computing devices can move with and thus reflect the people that use them. On some level, this is simply the continuation of a trend. In the old days of mainframes, a computer was a place. Computers were located in special rooms, tended by trained engineers, and anyone who wanted to interact with them had to go there. (Earlier still, the computer was so big that it was the room.) The advent of desktop computing changed this model, because suddenly a computer could be located where you were ? in your home or office. New interfaces emerged that reflected this new reality. The most prominent is the desktop operating system, which makes sense because PCs, by and large, sit on desktops. We take for granted notions of files, windows, folders, menus and applications, as if these metaphors reflected some inherent reality in the machines. In fact, they do not.

Personal Context is Everything

Mobile devices aren't tied to any one place. (That's what makes them mobile!) If a mobile Internet device is sitting on a desktop, it's because someone has temporarily set it town or tethered it to a PC, much like a hot air balloon tied down to the ground so passengers can step into the gondola. One aloft, though, the context changes. Mobile Internet devices are the true realization of personal computing because their native environment is the person. They go where you take them, and the world around them is nothing more or less than the world around you. I care more about hurricane forecasts and less about blizzards if I'm in the Caribbean in September, but not if I'm in Boston in January. I'd rather get the research report printed from the fax machine in the client's office where I'm standing right now, as opposed to the laser printer back in my office. And so forth.

Connected mobile devices are by nature social, just as humans are. The fact that they can talk to other devices isn't a feature, it's a core element, just as our ability to use language is built into - and shapes - our cognitive processes. Desktop software developers are just now starting to take full advantage of the universal connectivity the Internet provides, with applications that automatically update themselves over the network and novel services as Napster's peer-to-peer file sharing.

It's too early to predict the analogous developments in the world of mobile data. One thing is clear, though: they will build upon the unique aspects of the new environment. Truly personal computing will become a reality.

Kevin Werbach is the Editor of Release 1.0, an influential monthly report that covers the converging worlds of technology, communications and the Internet. He also co-organizes the annual PC Forum and High Tech Forum conferences for technology industry executives.

Kevin is known worldwide as a leading thinker on topics such as the future of e-business, network architecture, convergence and technology policy. An active participant in online communities for over fifteen years, he is particularly interested in the complex ways that new technologies intersect with markets and society.