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Internet transforms CE into computing devices

Posted: 01 Sep 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Adobe Open Screen Project? Internet-capable CE? computing devices?

Forget Atom. Forget Android. To see the future of computing, look to the Adobe Open Screen Project, an ambitious effort to bring full-featured Internet experience to devices ranging from TVs to mobile handsets. Should the project achieve its aims, it will radically alter CE devices and our relationships with them. Adding unfettered Internet access to, say, a personal navigation device (PND) doesn't just give the device a new feature; it creates an entirely new device with a fundamentally different usage model.

Within five years, consumers will have access to a rich selection of such productsdevices that combine the low cost and user-friendliness of CE with the unlimited flexibility of PCs. These consumer computing devices (to coin a phrase) will power a new class of Internet applications with unprecedented power.

Most amazingly, this shift will happen so subtly that few will sense it happening.

Internet is bridging the gap between CE devices and PCs.

Consider the case of the PND. Without an Internet connection, a PND can guide you to your destination, but not much else. Add even limited connectivity, and the device is much more useful. For example, with access to real-time traffic data, it can route you around traffic jams. This is a handy function, to be sure, but it doesn't change the fundamental nature of the device. Now give the PND full Internet access. Suddenly it becomes a newsreader, an e-mail terminal, a social networking toolessentially anything you want it to be.

In fact, these new-class consumer computing devices will have capabilities far beyond those of a PC. The Android Developer Challenge hints at the possibilities. This contest, which offers $10 million for Android applications, has turned up surprisingly innovative ideas, such as AndroidScan. This shopping assistant reads bar codes through the phone's camera and retrieves pricing data from online merchants and nearby stores. It can even search the shelves of local libraries for books, CDs and DVDs.

Even the physical characteristics of the consumer computing device will be a radical shift from today's PC. The forthcoming devices will evolve from today's handsets, PNDs, portable media players and STBs, giving them a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Most will be small enough to fit into a pocket and efficient enough to provide daylong battery life. Many will be affordable enough for use by children and in developing nations. The consumer computing device will be everywhereand a constant part of our lives.

Hurdles ahead
As wonderful as this future sounds, getting there won't be easy. CE and PC companies have made numerous attempts to bridge the gaps between them, and most of those efforts have resulted in abject failure. Past efforts have been plagued by four key problems: wimpy hardware; lousy Internet experience; fragmented and unfriendly OS; and awful business models.

For the most part, the hardware issue has been addressed. Hardware such as Intel Inc.'s Atom and Qualcomm Inc.'s SnapDragon can provide PC-like performance with daylong battery life, all in a handset-size package.

The Internet problem is only half-solved. Apple Inc.'s iPhone is leading the way in improving the Web experience with astounding results: Google reports that the iPhone generates 50x more search requests than any other handset. As good as the iPhone is, it has a serious limitation. A no-compromise Internet experience requires full Adobe Flash supportsomething the iPhone and many other devices lack.

That is where the Adobe Open Screen Project comes in: The effort aims to give CE devices the same level of Flash support as PCs.

Even with Flash support, CE devices are terrible tools for browsing the Internet. Most devices have a small screen and no keyboard. What's more, CE devices have features such as GPS that are not supported by general-purpose browsers.

To make the Internet truly useful, consumer computing devices will rely on specialized applications known as widgets. These widgets combine device data such as the current location with online data and services. The aforementioned AndroidScan widget demonstrates how powerful and intuitive widgets can be.

So why haven't we seen more widgets in today's devices? OS fragmentation is one major factor. The phone market is split among at least half a dozen OS, including Symbian, BlackBerry, Apple, Windows Mobile and Palm. With many competitors, programmers have been hesitant to place their bets on any one OS. When they do commit to an OS, they face hurdles not found in the PC world. To write code for today's mobile OS, you must first obtain security keys and code-signing certificates.

Open OS
These problems aren't going away anytime soon, but major improvements are on the way. First, a few OS appear to be pulling away from the pack. The future looks particularly bright for Symbian, Windows Mobile and Android. These three open OS are available for license to any manufacturer, meaning that they could be more widely adopted than proprietary OS such as the iPhone OS.

Android is particularly attractive because it is open in other ways. Unlike most OS, Android will allow downloaded software simply to install and run. This new model is attracting an impressive wave of software development. Even before it launches, Android has half as many outside applications as the BlackBerry platform.

Not everyone has been fast to get on board, though. "When Google first came to us, we laughed," said Sy Choudhury, manager of OS technologies at Qualcomm. Eventually, Qualcomm came around. "The thing that really excited us was the fact that they are going to open-source all of Android," said Choudhury. "We think that will lead to a lot of innovation." Citing the success of other community-driven efforts, he said, "We have no idea where people are going to take this."

This kind of mental shiftand the change in business models it impliesis the biggest challenge facing consumer computing devices. These future devices will need an Internet connection. In many cases, that connection will come via 3G cellular service. Thus, the success of these devices will in large part depend on carriers' acceptance of the wide-open, anything-goes Internet usage model. Thus far, the signs are not encouraging. Google recently proposed upgrading its Picasa photo service so users could upload images from a camera phone. Carriers rejected the idea because the free Google service would have competed with their proprietary, fee-based systems.

The carriers' protectionist approach does more than kill off innovative Internet services. Their outdated thinking makes it hard even to access the Internet in the first place. To get an iPhone in the United States, for example, you have to use AT&T. Similarly, U.S. support for the Android platform is currently limited to T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel.

Then there is the little issue of money. Today's devices are costly, or are tied to expensive service plans. Consider the iPhone 3G, which has been lauded for its rock-bottom price of $200. Sounds cheapuntil you add in a two-year service plan, which boosts your costs to well over $2,000.

Revolution has begun
Despite the challenges, the Internet is already working its way into CE. The iPhone may not yet have full-fledged Internet access, but other devices, such as the Nokia N810, doand even the iPhone's Flash-free browser offers a very good experience.

"The technology to make it happen is there," said Seshu Madhavapeddy, general manager of Texas Instruments Inc.'s mobile internet device unit. "Mobile application processors are hitting a spot where we can deliver the Internet at very low power. Broadband wireless technologies are being deployed, and the Internet itself has reached a point where it is ubiquitous."

As the Internet spreads into more CE devices, these devices transform the Internet. There is already an iPhone-customized version of Facebook, for example, and some reviewers like it better than the standard Facebook. The consumer computing revolution will be built on small changes like these. It is unlikely that any one killer app will emerge; nobody, for instance, buys an iPhone just so they can access iPhone Facebook. Indeed, the very power of the consumer computing device is its infinite flexibility.

Thus, the consumer computing revolution will be a subtle, gradual shift. Just as with the dot-com boom, there will be a huge wave of wild new ideas, and many will be failures. But the ideas that stick will radically alter our everyday livesjust as the Internet has already revolutionized the PC.

"We see the opportunity, but it's not self-evident how it will unfold," said Madhavapeddy. "The companies that can make it happen will be big winners."

- Kenton Williston
EE Times





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