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A mobile computer is effectively any computing device not constrained in its location to a desktop or data centre. In recent years the variety of mobile computing devices available has rapidly increased. In doing so, it has also turned from theory to reality a trend for ubiquitous computing, whereby computers are all around us in the world, enabling access to digital content anytime, any place and anywhere.
Many people believe that the future of computing is mobile -- and, in terms of the devices that most people and businesses use to access cyberspace, such a view is probably correct. Certainly the sale of desktop PCs is declining. The transition to mobile computing will also have very major implications. Not least it is already starting to make the provision of mobile Internet content as important as the publication of web pages aimed at users of PCs. Fairly soon now the small, often handheld screen is likely to be king -- a subject that Don Tapscott explains very well in this article.
Since personal computing went mainstream in the early 1980s, most people and businesses purchased desktop PCs not because they wanted to turn a valuable chunk of office or domestic real-estate into a permanent home for a computer, but because it was the only option available. Today, however, this is absolutely no longer the case, with a mobile and far less space-consuming computing device increasingly able to fulfil the requirements of a great many users. So let's take a look at the various types of mobile hardware that are now available.
MOBILE COMPUTING CATEGORIES
Mobile computers can usefully be divided into a number of categories. Firstly, many mobile computers are laptops -- or basically portable versions of desktop PCs, and usually based around the same type of hardware, and capable of running the same software applications. Since late 2011, some very thin, light laptops that meet certain Intel specifications have started to be branded as ultrabooks.
A third, if sadly declining, category of mobile computer is the netbook. These are considerably smaller than most laptops, though usually capable of running the same or similar software as a laptop or desktop PC. Fourthly, we then have tablet computers -- such as the Apple iPad -- which are like a laptop or netbook computer but without the keyboard and operated via touchscreen. While some tablets run traditional desktop operating systems such as Windows 8, the vast majority are loaded with a sleeker embedded operating system like Apple's iOS, or Google's Android. E-book readers are then a fifth category of mobile computer, and are effectively tablets dedicated to the presentation of electronic documents.
Decreasing in size, the sixth mobile computing category is smartphones -- which are mobile phones with Internet connectivity. Also of pocketable size we then have media players and mobile games consoles. Finally under mobile computing we may also include ambient computing devices that attempt to embed digital data into mobile computer hardware that operates at the edges of our perception.
A full discussion of every kind of device that could be considered a mobile computer is not just beyond the scope of this website, but would arguably serve little purpose. What follows is therefore a summary -- including specific, key product examples as appropriate -- of the aforementioned device categories and how they are likely to develop. Other good sources of information on mobile computing include suppliers Fused Mobility and Clove Technology. Indeed, a quick surf around these two websites can provide you with a very good idea of the vast range of mainstream mobile computing devices now available.
Whilst the term "mobile computer" is now sometimes only used to refer to a very small and even pocketable device, a laptop (or notebook) computer is still probably what many people may first picture when they think of a computer that is not rooted to a desk. In technology terms, laptops are basically desktop computers repackaged for portability. This means that they will almost always have either an Intel or AMD microprocessor (as found in desktop PCs and detailed on the hardware page), and will run a desktop operating system and applications, and most commonly Windows with applications such as Microsoft Office.
Pretty much everything discussed on this site under hardware and software applies for laptop as well as desktop computing. Laptop processor speeds tend to be a little lower (to conserve battery life) and memory and hard disk capacities smaller (the latter because notebook computers use 2.5" or smaller hard drives, compared to the 3.5" units still usually found in most desktops).
Not that many years ago, when deciding between a desktop and a laptop PC there was a significant performance trade-off be weighed. Today, however, a typical laptop can be considered a direct replacement for a typical desktop PC. Laptop computers do cost more and can have keyboards and mouse-replacing touchpads that some people find difficult to use. However, except for activities such as intensive video editing and 3D rendering, there is nothing that now holds most laptops back. In particular, the widespread use of WiFi wireless networking now makes a laptop the computer of choice for many.
Ultrabooks are a relatively new breed of stylish, lightweight laptop that may within a few years replace most larger and heavier models. To be called an ultrabook, a laptop has comply with a hardware specification laid down by Intel. This requires laptop manufacturers to shrink their computers to less than 21mm thick, to make them resume from sleep in just few seconds, to provide at least five hours of battery life, and to include anti-theft technology. Many ultrabooks also use a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a traditional, spinning hard disk, weigh not much more than a kilogram, and are housed in a designer casing made from a material such as an aluminium alloy or carbon fibre.
Although Intel came up with the ultrabook specification and is heavily marketing the brand, it does not going to manufacture ultrabooks itself. Rather, its intention is to try and ensure that successive generations of ultrathin, ultralight laptops from a wide range of other manufacturers will deliver a consistent user experience. The first ultrabooks were launched in late 2011, with first generation models from Acer, Asus, Lenovo, Toshiba -- all of whom still sell ultrabooks (if increasingly under the label "thin, light laptops"!).
Many of the latest ultrabooks feature touchscreens to make best use of Windows 8. A few ultrabooks are also labelled as "convertibles". This means that they can transform from a standard laptop/ultrabook form factor into a tablet device by somehow rotating and/or folding back their screen so that it rests flat on the top of the device. You can see some such models here.
Netbooks (once known as ultramobiles or "UMPCs") are small, low-power laptops with typically a 7, 8.9, 10.1, 11 or 13 inch screen and a less-than-full-size keyboard. The first netbook was produced by Psion in 2000. However, the netbook market was only really kick-started by Asus in late 2007 when its launched the first of its expansive range of so-termed "Eee PCs". Early Eee PCs were intended for children and casual use around the home. However, not least due to their price tag (of between £170 to £300 depending on the model) Eee PCs created a new mass market. Indeed, in its first year (celebrated by this online birthday party) the Eee PC sold over a million units. Other manufacturers therefore had little choice but to enter the netbook market. They also had to match the Eee PC's price point despite the significant impact on their profit margins.
In 2009 netbooks accounted for about 20 per cent and rising of the laptop market, with revenue from netbook sales doubling to $11.7bn globally against a background of the continuing recession and stagnant desktop and laptop sales. However, today the netbook form-factor appears to be in terminal decline, with even Asus no longer selling a netbook model. This is a shame as netbooks can still offer great value for money and high functionality as mobile workhorses (I happen to be writing these words on a netbook right now!). Rightly or wrongly, netbooks simply seem to be being squeezed out of a market that believes that it better serves many business customers with ultrabooks, and many consumers (or light-keyboarding professionals) with tablets. Few new netbooks are therefore likely to be left on the market by the end of 2014 (although many will remain happily in use!).
The above pending demise of the netbook noted, it is still the case that Google continues to promote a range of specialist netbooks known as "chromebooks"). These feature solid state drives (SSDs), and run Google Chrome OS (rather than Windows), with all of their applications accessed from the cloud.
You can see me upgrade the memory in an Acer Aspire One 725 netbook in this video.
The launch of the much-hyped Apple iPad in January 2010 triggered a new plague of tablet fever across the computer industry. This had happened once before in November 2002 when Microsoft launched a TabletPC edition of Windows XP. At that time, many PC manufacturers -- including Toshia and Compaq -- built tablet PCs to the TabletPC specification. However, back in the early noughties tablets never really caught the public imagination. But second time around the world was apparently ready to abandon its keyboard, and the current tablet revolution was born.
A tablet is basically a laptop/ultrabook/netbook computer without a keyboard and operated with a touch screen. Back in the Microsoft TabletPC days, tablets were single-touch, operated with a stylus, and as large as most laptops. But devices like the iPad are a whole new breed of far slimmer, lighter computers with multi-touch interfaces operated with your fingers. Whilst first-generation tablets were mainly intended to run locally-installed applications, this time around tablets are very much being heralded as cloud computing interface devices for accessing web media content and running downloaded apps and SaaS applications.
While for 18 months or so Apple pretty much had the mainstream tablet market to itself, today that is no longer the case. Most significantly, in 2011 the first tablets based on Google's Android operating system started to appear on the market. Today Google sells its own Nexus range of Android tablets, with other major manufacturers selling highly successful Android tablets including Samsung with its Galaxy range, Sony, and Amazon with its Kindle Fire models.
In October 2012 Microsoft also re-entered the tablet marketplace with its Surface tablets, now in their second generation. These are currently available running either the full version of Windows 8.1 (ie the same version of Windows now supplied with a new desktop, laptop or ultrabook), or a cut-down tablet-only operating system called Windows RT. This has been specifically written to run on a lower-power ARM processor, rather a traditional Intel or AMD PC required to run all previous major versions of Windows.
E-Book readers -- or just e-readers -- started to go mass-market in 2008 and 2009. In essense e-book readers are a form of tablet largely dedicated to the purchase, storage and presentation of books, newspapers and magazines. The biggest difference between most e-readers and other tablets is the use of an e-ink display as opposed to a "traditional" liquid crystal screen. These provide a paper-like reading experience due to their high contrast and resolution. E-ink screens are also very power efficient as current only has to be used to change rather than maintain the image. This said, some e-reader displays -- like that on the Kindle Paperwhite -- can be used in an illuminated mode that does constantly use battery power.
Several e-book readers are now on the market. The most famous is the Kindle range from Amazon, and to which books are downloaded from Amazon wirelessly either via WiFi or over 3G using Amazon's "Whispernet". Barnes and Noble is also a major manufacturer of e-readers with its Nook models.
E-book readers are unlikely to ever replace traditional books. However, many commentators predict that e-book readers or tablets will change the face of newspaper, magazine and non-fiction publishing. Most newspaper publishers are now struggling financially in the face of free online content. Charging a subscription to have their publication delivered to an e-book reader may therefore be an attractive proposition. New opportunities are also likely to emerge to subscribe to only parts of publications -- such as the sports section of one newspaper and the arts and entertainment section of another.
Around 1999, Microsoft launched a technology platform called "Pocket PC" for small organizer-sized devices or PDAs (personal digital assistants) running what is now called the Windows Phone operating system and applications. However, developments in the mobile phone market kind of overtook PocketPC, with people more keen to carry one integrated digital device, rather than a separate mobile phone and pocket computer. Such integrated devices are now most commonly called smartphones, and provide Internet access on typically via a three-to-four inch touchscreen, in addition to text message, camera and voice call functionality. Examples of smartphones include Apple iPhones, as well as phones that run the Google Android or Windows Phone 7 Series operating systems.
It is getting increasingly difficult to categorize every kind of mobile computing device on the market. However, a final category can reasonably be identified to include the wide variety of music and video media players that are carried in many a pocket, as well as mobile games consoles. Some of these devices now also feature a web browser and Internet connectibity. Examples of media players include various models of Apple iPod, as well as devices from Creative and Sony. At present the most popular mobile games consoles are the Playstation Vita from Sony and the two-screen 3DS from Nintendo.
Laptops and netbooks, and to perhaps a lesser extent tablets, smartphones, media players and e-book readers, are all devices that most people would recognise as a mobile computer if they saw one. However, today computer processing power and wireless connectivity is increasingly also being integrated into devices that would in no reasonable context be recognisable as a computer. This leads us into the area of "ambient" mobile computing.
Whereas laptops, ultramobiles and their like enable people to compute ubiquitously -- ie anytime and anywhere -- what they also do is to demand and/or require a user's full attention. In contrast, ambient computing operates at the limits of our senses by utilising our pre-attentive processing abilities. Ambient computing is hence far less demanding and interruptive of other human activities. Or as AmbientDevices.com explain, ambient computing devices "create tangible interfaces between consumers and their digital information through wireless, sell-contained products".
MOBILE COMPUTING: CONCLUSIONS?
Any definition of just what constitutes a "mobile computer" inevitably remains both relative and subjective. For example, back in 1981 one of the very first portable computers was the Osborne 1. This weighed 11.8Kg, was larger than most modern desktop PCs, and only ran on mains power without an optional battery pack. At the other end of the scale, the Artigo Pico-ITX PC measures just 150mm x 110mm x 40mm, weigh only 520 grams, and yet is probably best categorised as very small desktop computer.
Mobile computing is probably an area best defined at any one point in time by those devices that are challenging paradigms and setting new consumer and business agendas. And right now this includes the latest tablets, ultrabooks, and even hardware like the Raspberry Pi.
Ultimately, whilst mobile computing is still barely out of its infancy, it is fairly certain to represent a larger and larger part of the future of computing development. Not least this is because desktop computers are now a relatively mature platform offering little scope for high-return market development for companies in the computing industry. The rising green computing agenda will also mean that desktop computers are replaced far less regularly, in turn making new mobile computing market opportunities even more attractive. Mobile computing also offers the potential for what Apple once called "computing for the rest of us" -- or in other words, computing for those people who do not spend their working day at a desk, and/or those who do not want to spend their leisure time slaved to a desktop PC.
Mobile computing can also perhaps even be considered as more "natural" than those location-dependent forms that have gone before. As seekers, consumers, processors, hoarders and communicators of information, every human being is already a form of mobile computer. Increasingly smart devices that can travel with us to help in such seeking, consuming, processing, hoarding and communicating will hence perhaps inevitably be very widely adopted as soon as they become technically and economically mass-viable. Indeed, one only has to look at the uptake of mobile phones to consider the potential.
The science fiction of the last decade contained a great many robots to walk beside us in servitude. However, we are perhaps far more likely to want to seek assistance from a small device that we can carry with us or find lying around the home or office than from a lumbering mechanical clone.
A mobile computing device is effectively any computer not constrained in its location to
a desktop or data centre.