As I fly back home from DemoMobile, I am struck by the fact that "innovation" in the mobile market is apparently stuck in the same quagmire we faced at the outset of the Web. All mobile computing paths appear to be leading to the walled garden. And no matter how pretty that walled garden may appear at first blush, mark my words, it is going to feel pretty claustrophobic in no time at all.
Chris Shipley, the Executive Producer of DemoMobile, started out the conference with a mea culpa. Last year at DemoMobile, Chris welcomed the dawn of the age of "Device Computing." She contended at the time that computing was moving to the edge of the network where it would hereafter be resident in smart devices. It was a reasonable conclusion to come to. Devices like the Treo 600 were emerging and starting to crack the code on mobile computing.
That said, Chris has changed her mind. On closer inspection, she has determined that we are, in fact, in the age of "Service-Based Computing." In Service Based Computing, devices are not the brains of the operation. They are just pretty little end nodes on a smart data network. The real horsepower is going to be delivered in the network through managed services. And that's not just for consumer services. ASPs like Salesforce and QuickBooks Online, for example, demonstrate that, as Chris put it, "the future model for nearly all computing" is service based. I could not agree with her more. Fat pipes and elegant devices make it possible to deliver immense services to the edge of the network but the real work is going to get done in the network, not the device. The result, Chris concluded, is that devices and the services that work on them are going to have to "simply work and work simply." Ah-men to that.
The problem is that while a number of Chris's demonstrators got the memo on "simply working and working simply," they missed the memo that said "the walled garden is a prison." Take, for example, Pepper Computer. The Pepper Pad is a purpose built tablet PC of sorts, designed to be carried around the wireless home for access to the Web, IM, email, music, videos, etc. And it is unquestionably an example of a device delivering the intelligence of the network. The only problem is that the horsepower in the network is a one trick pony. You get the limited functionality it comes with and no more. Same is true of the Wireless Media Gateway being launched by ViewSonic (the monitor people). ViewSonic's gateway is a 120 Gig Network Attached Storage device with built in Wifi. You migrate media content onto the gateway device via your PC and then that content is distributed around the home using WiFi to Wireless Media Adapters hooked up to your TV, stereo, monitor. But while the interface is simple, it is also simple minded. You only get to view or listen to specified categories of content in predetermined ways. Similarly, Handmark, Inc. (the PDA game people) launched a set of wireless services delivered to certain memory-rich cell phones. While the set of services they have chosen may be useful (e.g., simple white and yellow pages), you get only the services they chose to deliver. And the examples went on throughout the conference.
No matter how elegant the interface, no matter how simple the service, I believe purpose built hardware and services (like those demoed this week) will fail. The thing that is exciting to me about the increasing power of wireless devices and the increasingly thick wireless pipe is that these devices will become full-featured, general-purpose computers. While I agree with Chris that the future is in the services delivered over the network, that future will be about any device accessing any service, not about specific devices accessing specific services. Perhaps this is just an evolutionary step toward that promised land, but let me know when the walls come down. That's when you'll find me playing in the wireless garden.