Where is the computation?

I’m pretty happy with my Nexus S so far. It’s a decent phone with some solid apps and services. More importantly, it’s a well-equipped little pocket computer. However the more I use smartphones (and similar devices like the iPod Touch) the more I feel a nagging sense that I’m not really these devices well, at least not to their full potential.

While the devices in our pockets might be increasingly powerful general purpose computers I feel like we use them more for communication than for computation. That’s not to say that communication does not require computation (it does, lots of it), but we’re not using our devices with the goal of solving problems via computation.

This is perhaps a very programmer-centric viewpoint of mobile technology, but one that is important to consider. Even someone like me, who writes code on a regular basis to solve a variety of both personal and research problems, does very little computation on mobile devices. In fact, the most I’ve been using my Nexus for is email, RSS reading, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. While all those services definitely have good uses, they are all cases where most of the computation happens far away on massive third-party datacenters. The devices themselves act as terminals (or portals if you prefer a more modern-sounding term) onto the worlds these services offer.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that I want to write programs on these devices. Though that would certainly be neat, I can’t see myself giving up a more traditional computing environment for the purposes of programming anytime soon. However, I do want my device to do more than help me keep in touch with my friends (again, that’s a worthy goal but just the beginning). So the question is, what kind of computation do we want our mobile devices to do?

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure. One way to go is to have our phones become capable personal assistants. For example, I would like to be able to launch an app when I walk into a meeting (or better yet, have it launch itself based on my calendar and geolocation). The app would listen in on the conversation, apply natural language processing and generate a list of todos, reminders and calendar items automatically based on what was said in the meeting. Of course there are various issues (privacy, technology, politics, corporations playing nicely with each other) but I think it’s a logical step forward.

As payment systems in phones become more popular, I’d like my phone to become my banker too (and I’m not just talking about budgeting and paying bills on time). For example if I walk into a coffee shop my phone should check if I’m on budget as far as coffee shops go and check coffee shops around the area to suggest a cheaper (or better, for some definition of better) alternative. And it doesn’t just have to be limited to coffee shops.

Mobile technology is sufficiently new that most of us don’t have a very clear idea of what to do with it (or a vision of what it should do). Most so-called “future vision” videos focus more on interfaces than actual capabilities. However this technology is evolving fast enough that I think we’re going to see the situation improving quickly. With geolocation-based services, NFC and voice commands becoming more ubiquitous and useful the stage is becoming set for us to make more impactful uses of the processors in our pockets. As a programmer I would love to be able to hook up my phone to any cloud services or private servers I’m using and be able to interact with them. The mobile future promises to be interesting and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

A New Year, A New Phone

This year I’ve decided to make a foray into the future by finally getting myself a proper smartphone. I’ve had an iPod Touch for a while but also had a simple Nokia not-smart phone to make actual phone calls. It’s always been somewhat annoying to have to manage two devices: a real phone for calls or texts and the iPod for any Internet and data-related work. A large part of my resistance to getting an actual smartphone was that I simply didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a cell phone plan when I was surrounded by wi-fi all the time and barely made actual phone calls. But now that there are finally both reasonably cheap unlocked smartphones and contract-free data plans I decided to bite the bullet.

The unlocked iPhone 4S would end up costing me a tad over $800 after tax and Applecare. I was also getting bored of the iOS ecosystem and its closed, silo system for apps. So instead I got myself a much cheaper unlocked Android phone – the Google/Samsung Nexus S. I’m pairing that with a $30 a month T-Mobile data and phone plan. I’m still waiting for a new SIM card to show up but till then I’m making use of the ample wifi coverage that’s a side-effect of living in a college town. For now, I’m only going to talk about my first impressions on the Nexus S itself.

Google Nexus S

Google Nexus S (via Wikipedia)

The Nexus S is Google’s previous flagship phone. Its current flagship is the Galaxy Nexus which Google is also selling unlocked. However it’s almost twice the price I paid for the Nexus S and in my opinion, isn’t sufficient of an upgrade to justify the price. Even though it’s about a year old by now (and technically running the old version of Android), I haven’t had a problem with it so far.

It looks pretty different from the iPhone and the plastic feel takes some getting used it. I also think it slips more easily, but that might just be a personal problem. The back of the phone has something of a ridge at the bottom which I guess is supposed to make it easier to hold. Though the build quality does feel inferior as compared to the iPhone, I like it and have no major complaints.

The Android sofware feels like a breath of fresh air as compared to the iPhone. It is considerably more customizable and I like the presence of both tradiiontal apps as well as “widgets” that add functionality directly to your home screens. I’ve found widgets great for quickly looking up data like the weather, Twitter mentions or what system services are currently running.

The tinkerer in me loves how customizable the Android system is. Changing the look and feel is just the beginning. There are a lot of bells and whistles and options and sometimes it can be a rather confusing. For now I’ve only stuck to the usual set of apps (Twitter, Foursquare, Camera) but I’m looking forward to trying out new and interesting apps in the future. More than that I feel like Android would be a really good platform if I decide to get into mobile dev anytime soon.

There are a few things about the Nexus S that I’m concerned with. I think the battery life is a tad too short, especially with the geolocation services on all the time. Luckily, the battery monitor widget makes it simple to turn off services with a touch so maybe some manual management might make it better. While the Google apps are really well integrated (especially Google Voice) and apps from large companies are well done, third-party apps seem to be of considerably less quality than iOS equivalents. I don’t really blame the developers given the multitude of devices but it does mean that finding good apps for simple things like RSS is more difficult than it should be.

Despite the glitches and minor annoyances I really like the Nexus S. The hardware is pretty solid and I like Android so far. Right now having a fully functional smartphone is still pretty new to me, but I’m hoping that when the novelty wears off I’ll dive into actually programming the powerful computer in my pocket.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year Everyone! Hope you all have a great year ahead of you. Apparently the world is supposed to end sometime this year but I’m sure there will be enough time for crazy hacks, awesome technology and interesting new happenings before then. Personally I’m looking forward to branching into serious functional programming, learning more about networks and networked applications, experimenting with cool new programming languages and maybe even making a few forays into mobile development. I hope there’s going to be a lot of learning, lots more programming and even more personal projects that I can release to the public. Glad to have you all along for the ride!