Geoffrey Meredith
Thoughts on Technology


(posted on 14 Apr 2008)
My recent trip Banff gave me a lot to think about in terms of the kinds of tools that would make me productive in mobile environments.

There really are two different environments that I am thinking.  The first is relates to being able to do a limited amount of work while I'm out and about but need to be able to react quickly to problems.  The second is one that would travel with me to places where I want to get serious work done.

Light Computing

My "out and about" mobile client needs to be light enough to fit in a big pocket of my cargo pants and powerful enough to write medium length email messages and visit standard web pages.  I've played with a few things.  I've uses a Nokia 770 Internet tablet, a Samsung A920, a Razr, an eee PC and even an OLPC XO.  The WiFi devices are pretty good where you can get open WiFi but that's not an easy thing to do in Vancouver.  There is a lot of WiFi signal around but people have gotten smart about locking them down.  Until/if Vancouver gets blanket WiFi or WiMax, the only real solution is cellular data.  I tried to pairing up the N770 with the A920 via bluetooth and use the DUN.  That worked fairly well until the $100 bill came in for a couple of dozen web pages.  Cellular data plans are hideously expensive here in Canada.  So far, my best option ends up being a lowly Razr on a prepaid plan from  I don't use it much for talking but for $7/month I unlimited web browsing, albeit on an extremely limited device.  At least I can check my Gmail account regularly and either respond if it's no more than a sentence, or get myself to a real computer quickly.

This is not a great solution but it will have to do until I can find something better.  An iPhone would get me fairly close but even if it were available in Canada, I'd still have a hard time justifying it's cost.  I'm just not that mobile that I could justify it.  Unless I could find a project that I required it!  Even then, I would like to have a better keyboard.  I like the idea of the folding bluetooth keyboards.  You can just pull them out when you need to do more extensive typing.  I have a borrowed one but I've yet to find a bluetooth device that it will work with.  That seems to be a common problem with these things.

Heavy Computing

When I'm going to camp out in some hotel room for a bit and need to do serious work while I'm there, I can get by with some standard equipment but I have been dreaming about the ideal set up.  Most of this equipment does not exist and I doubt it ever will.  It's not a matter of can it be built but is there a market for it and a manufacturer willing to risking building it.

Instead of having a standard notebook computer, this would be made up of a couple of components that would be built using similar technologies to notebooks.  The core would be the CPU and storage module.  This would be something along the lines of a mac mini in size although I'm not sure that the optical drive would be necessary.  Not for me anyway.  Just a hard drive and a decent CPU.  Maybe a battery.  Some IO ports.  WiFi, WiMax or cellular data or a PCI express slot to provide for connectivity.  I could see selecting this component from a number similar units that could be configured for high power or portability, etc, just like notebook computers are today.  For display, we could have our choice too.  A very think and light clamshell that was made up of a keyboard, touch pad and screen that had wireless connectivity to the CPU base up to folding dual 17" panels with stand and wired DVI connection to the base.  A separate wireless keyboard and touch pad or mouse would be designed for travel but could be chosen to suit the user.  Many would be fine with a notebook style keyboard and touch pad but I'd prefer a split keyboard and full size mouse.

All of these components could fit into a reasonably small case and not be too heavy.  Likely in the 10 pound range.  Now that sounds heavy to those that wander around all day with a 3 pound notebook over the shoulder all day but that's not what this is for.  This form factor would be very nice as a desktop replacement but would also be compact enough to travel although note necessarily fit on your airline seat back tray.

Most of the interface standards already exist.  Bluetooth would work for a lot of the wireless communicatiosn between compoents.  The screen connection might need some redesign, especially if it were wireless.  Most of these components just require the tallents of a good notebook packaging designer and engineer.  When you look at what Apple did with the Air, could you imagine that same skill applied to these component system?

What's kind of funny about some of these ideas is that I've had some of this in the past.  15 to 20 years ago, I had a series of "portable" computers that weighted from 20 to 35 pounds.  From the Osborne to the original Compaq, the metal cased Eagle and even IBM's first (and I think only) lunchbox style computer, I had computers that were fairly close in functionality to the then available desktop computers.  I actually took most of these on airplanes (although the Compaq had to have it's boards and connectors reseated after each trip!)

So I would love to have some of the expertise that is used to make today's laptops put into portable component computing.  To have a set of mix and match parts that I could use to build my ideal portable working environment would be wonderful.

I doubt that I will see this though.  The computer industry is too focused on building slight variations on a couple of themes.  You can see how reluctant manufactures are to step out side of a narrow box when you look at the success of the eee PC.  Millions of these have been sold into a market that did not exist before it was produced.  There was obviously a demand but the manufacturers were not willing to risk it until Asus came a long.  Hmm... maybe Asus will start building my mobile modular computer components (the MMCC?).

I can always dream!