Mobile hardware outpaces software, user capabilities

In a few short years, many consumers may never even use a PC

Mobile hardware is outpacing software capabilities and the mobile user experience, according to a group of mobile phone technologists speaking at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among those speaking was Rich Miner, group manager of mobile platforms at Google, who said open operating systems -- like the one launched on Google's the long-awaited G1 Android phone -- will drive future innovation, but much of it may be lost on the user in the short term.

"The easiest way to see this is ... about 80 percent of mobile phones have cameras in them today, yet if you were to ask how many people actually use those cameras -- know how to get photos off of the phone -- it's probably literally 10 percent to 15 percent," Miner said during a panel discussion on the future of mobile communications at Technology Review's Emerging Technologies Conference here.

Miner spoke only a day after the debut of the G1 Android phone, a combination of technology from T-Mobile, Google and HTC. Much like Apple's iPhone, with a touch-pad screen and GPS, the G1 Android adds a physical keyboard.

These phones "have the capabilities in terms of hardware and processing power and network connectivity that desktop computers had a few years ago. These devices clearly have desktop mobile computing capabilities but yet we're not using them this way," Miner said.

Elizabeth Altman, vice president of strategy and business development at Motorola Mobile Devices, said having more open OSes on phones and lower prices for those phones will enable greater use of more sophisticated applications and make it more interesting for developers to create more Android-style OSes for mid-tier mobile phones, but she added, "for good chunks of the world, in 3 to 5 years, Android probably won't be the operating system of choice because it just doesn't make sense economically."

Among the issues dissuading users from employing all the capabilities of their mobile devices is the complexity involved in operating them. Another obstacle is the traditional programming environments for mobile phones, which have been controlled by resellers and mobile phone carriers, and "neither of those groups are known for building brilliant software," Miner said.

But with the entrance of companies such as Microsoft and Google into the mobile platform market, a shift is coming -- one so dramatic that in a few years, a large contingent of consumers may not even use a PC, but instead perform all their Internet and communications applications on mobile devices, according to panelist Kevin Lynch, chief technology officer of the Experience and Technology Group at Adobe Systems.

Lynch said many developers are also betting on Webkit, an open source application framework, as the method for creating a foundation on which web services can be delivered across platforms, be it Windows, Linux or Mac. Miner also said larger and faster touch screens, better designed keyboards along with the use of conventional wireless networks and high speed networks with contemporary web browsers will give users an experience very much like that of a desktop PC, Miner said. "Not that that experience is the exact same one as you'd have on your desktop, but the browsers are becoming every bit as capable on mobile phones as the ones on your desktops," he said.

"All of these things are going to be important factors in realizing the mobile Internet which has eluded us," he added.

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Lucas Mearian

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