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Mobile Computing

Free essayMobile computing devices have become ubiquitous today. This widespread presence in its turn has opened a lot of new markets for creating specialized personal business software or for extensive data collection – with and without proactive user participation. Tablet PCs – a form of mobile devices with a significantly larger screen size and resolution are a separate category, because it is not always comfortable for users to carry around their tablet PCs, while currently the only interface advantage they provide is the area for displaying text, images and video, while the design principles are virtually the same as in new generation mobile phones.

Recently, because desktop computing power in terms of core frequencies has relatively stopped growing further – mostly because of technological limitations, the focus has been put on mobile devices. Although, the former still keep conforming to Moore’s law, rather literally – by introducing dual-core, quad-core, etc. CPUs are running at the same peak frequencies of 3-4 GHz. Recent developments, pioneered by POWER consortium, have lead to the industry first 5GHz CPUs, at the cost of reduced complexity – the out-of-order execution module has been removed. New releases of a commercial desktop 5 GHz from AMD (Over_Lord, 2013), following after the initial peak in IBM’s race for frequency – the industry 5.2-5.5 GHz Z-series CPU for their mainframes (Gruener, 2012). The mobile computing power has been ramping up, though, and currently we can encounter 1.2-1.4 GHz, ARM RISC CPUs and nearly gigabytes of low-power DDR3 memory in everyday mobile devices – the amount of computing power that could challenge a widespread budgetary everyday desktop from as little as some 5-8 years ago. Despite such rise in raw CPU frequency, some interfaces can provide terrible performance, because of latency, flicker, random bugs, information display artifacts and so on; and in many cases mobile computing and mobile clients are still not perceived seriously as a replacement or even a challenge to desktops or laptops. The following paragraph will explore the issue to its full extent.

During discussions with industry professionals, certain historical truths about mobile computing can be revealed, that unveil the mystery of their sometimes poorer performance, compared to desktops. First of all – the human factor exists, most do not see the deficiencies as critical, because “it is a mobile computer”, meaning it is somehow supposed to be small and inferior in performance. But from a technological perspective, mobile platforms were developing quite rapidly, and in an unlucky period, when desktop computing power was already quite high. While, traditionally, desktops were built to be optimized for productivity, mobile devices were built projected from a new computing philosophy or perspective, and it was not quite resource-preserving. As an example – a typical desktop OS from 10 years consists of a kernel and hardware drivers, then the C library layer and then some libraries and visual components built on top, usually by means of an optimized compiled language like C++. Mobile devices, on the other hand featured proprietary OSes, first with Java (like MIDP) or similar language environment, but later at some point their interfaces have become more and more complex – with additional layers of software stacked upon each other. Some interfaces were designed as an extension of a browser rendering engine, coded in interpreted languages, which obviously introduces the “browser OS” layer, as well as the language interpreter and some XML library layers, to parse the internal workings of an application. With add-ons like Flash Player or embedded Java applications and similar, the number of software layers in a single user interface increases – producing overhead and an increasing number of opportunities for bugs, exploits and other deficiencies. Of course, on the other hand, it is a huge market for employment of various sorts of specialists and quality assurance engineers, and such inefficiency has lead to the IT industry boom worldwide. So, while mobile devices were not perceived as a serious replacement for desktops, neither as rivals in performance, there was no motivation to actually reach those goals (for some) or destination.

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Black and white electrophoretic (EPD) display tablets – mostly known as book-readers or kindles are another important aspect of mobile computers. While promising a lot of opportunities to investors willing to enter the market by paying the price of developing new devices, the whole EPD venture did not return much, and there are several obvious reasons for such course of events. First of all, EPDs provide a limited, slow-response interface. While being incredibly green and energy-efficient is a lucid dream of virtually anyone involved in technology or Eco-activism, in reality most users do not actually need a device that can run weeks on battery, because of both everyday availability of wall socket electricity and being trained to charge their devices regularly – for example every evening. Second, one should mention the limited multimedia capabilities of EPD displays. Unfortunately, in the modern world, there are too little ascetic users, willing to infinitely read black-and-white book page content, without any kind of multimedia distraction. Last but not least, because EPD devices were initially marketed as “books” or “newspapers”, in the minds of many these were not intended to be devices for data acquisition or filling in business paper blanks. Finally, the business model was designed in a way that consumers choose their devices themselves, and parties like banks, insurance companies, etc., provide the users with a mainstream solution. Since the users did not appeal to the asceticism of EPD displays – the more multimedia-rich tablets took over. The consumers are the ones who pay their increased bill, not the providers.

Usability is the next big concern for mobile devices and their content (Chae & Kim, 2004). Informational screens are always a trade-off between the amount displayed, its visibility and most important – the ability of user to effectively locate and parse information. For example, the ergonomics when designing informational displays in airports and other public transportation places, or advertisement panels, always suggest sparse location of data in big or huge readable font, tabular and intuitively understandable format, etc. Such constraints are dictated by the vast amount of users from different cultural and social backgrounds, different, usually long reading ranges and a relatively low average IQ threshold for efficient parsing of information (author’s personal experience). Interface design for consumer mobile computing follows similar principles, and an especially big research effort has been devoted to studying the usability of mobile devices by older people and people with impaired vision abilities (Ziefle, 2009; Mair, 2009). Just like in the previous discussion of software layers, the menu and interface structures for mobile phones have emerged historically (Chae & Kim, 2004), and are not always the best efficient usability scenario. On the other hand, the innovations brought by companies like Apple into the user-interface interactions are also based on a solid body of research publications, from decades of publications presented on user and computer graphics conferences and other various sources of company experience. On the other hand, yet another minority of users – like advanced IT specialists and hackers have been overlooked by mainstream industry and user interface design, most probably because these communities are usually able to serve themselves, and quite often their developments released as open-source or copy left are the basis of new developments in commercial applications. To provide an example of possible variety of interface usability requirements, for some people a text terminal on a mobile screen with a size of characters close to 6 by 8 pixels and a relatively small display grain size is quite comfortable. Given enough rows and columns, such terminal can render tables, simplified web pages, etc., but most important – it can be used to execute commands, write software, etc. Many other alternative user interfaces are centered around text as the universal representation of information, plus share the same philosophy with mainstream touchscreen mobile interfaces – the user gestures do not have to be pinpoint-precise, e.g. to expand, not close the window you have to aim for the specific button, or to drag a window- you have to aim for the heading. In mobile devices, on the other hand, usually the user is intended to work with a single window full-screen, which is also a historical artifact – because of the lower screen resolution in the previous generation devices, or mostly entertainment-type applications running on such devices, historically. It is important to repeat the previously mentioned fact that most users do not ultimately look or need the most efficient implementation of a user interface, and across different users the concept of such efficiency and ergonomicity varies greatly. An IT expert or a well-experienced hacker may find himself uncomfortable or unable to operate the new iPhone or Android device, because of significant interface differences, compared to what one has been using for decades prior to introduction of these devices.

Modern mobile devices provide a lot of benefits to both consumers and businesses, on the opportunities for data acquisition and access. Some applications of geolocation or crowd sourced data collection like open maps of cities, Wi-Fi hotspots, etc., require a significant amount of users to generate valid data, similar to the text editing process happening in open encyclopedias like Wikipedia. The more user and contributor resources can be collected – the more precise the data in a particular application could be. All kinds of businesses, from package delivery, to small shops, inventory management up to street questionnaires, market research, business or other official papers and documents, etc., could be in theory effectively replaced by a tablet computer, either with an EPD or a full multimedia display. Of course, such transition could happen with the widespread availability of mobile computing interface developers, an open ecosystem of software and hardware, probably cross-compatible, and most important – the relatively low cost of such devices. Unfortunately, most modern tablets are far from the “cheap” scale, providing excess functionality, and there is no cheap developer workforce or instant out-of-the box universal solutions for every kind of interface and data acquisition application. For example, many companies are still stuck in their competitive fight over market shares, and are slowly willing to commit to an open widespread technological ecosystem. Microsoft, after recognizing its losses to iOS and Android in mobile computing market shares, has finally made the decision to make its mobile development framework free of charge to the developer public, showing a significant shift in the typical business model of this company (Cunningham, 2012). Apple and Google, on the other hand, are both software companies that extensively parasite on open-source software developments to sustain their corporate profits, and in the latest end are not quite committed to providing cheap available out-of-box solutions, but rather create an enormous business hierarchy, centered around their created and marketed image of luxury and individuality or “advanced” features of their software.

The other end of such ecosystem are the servers that provide 24/7 availability of information to mobile device endpoints, and these represent yet another enormous business environment. Data-centers and specialized equipment, servers, information storage devices and networking equipment, materials, etc. can be of very high costs, especially those intended to reach the finest grade and non-compromising productivity. Moreover, to provide 24/7 availability, such equipment has to be housed in special buildings, and possess fire, lightning, surge and other kind of power line protection, as well as have access to several providers of Internet connectivity, power grids and generally keep an alternative source of energy like a generator and battery UPSes for critical cases. Such deep ends are targeted at preserving the most important product and property of datacenter customers – the information. Such information could virtually cost much more than all the equipment necessary to preserve it. Moreover, the ability to effectively mine and process such information is also another possible source of income, when properly applied. The described activities are generally known as data mining, and the technological markets of the hardware are usually termed high-performance and high-availability computing. Owning and operating a datacenter is believed to be a luxury only huge corporations or government-mandated organizations could have; on the other hand, rented space and even rented virtual computing units are available for the public, usually known as co-location, cloud computing and Virtual Private Servers.

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In the following paragraphs, the deficiencies of the existing order of things will be discussed. First of all, as it has been already mentioned, most users do not appeal to devices that are not entertaining. As a per-requisite, these individuals mostly do not appeal to “boring” type of activities that are ultimately rewarding in terms of skill or personal development, but would rather choose interactive or entertaining activities. It is questionable, whether such components in learning or workplaces could lead to more efficiency and productivity, and it is out of scope of current discussion, but it is obvious that such preferences lead users into choosing devices and interfaces with excess elements and functionality, or choosing devices that are more “powerful”, trendier or more high-tech. Of course, such a widespread preference creates companies, technologies and business ecosystems. In the assignment outline for current essay, it was mentioned that insurance and other companies have recognized the possibility to use mobile devices as a platform for filing claims and other documents, providing on-site data collection. Of course, users pay their own bills for the hardware, mobile Internet rates, etc., and it could provide clear cuts in business expenses like hiring consultants, offices, paperwork, as well as provide profits to probable partners in venture like mobile phone operators, hardware manufacturers, reselling stores of those devices, etc. On the other hand, this leads more and more users to consume expensive and in many cases useless devices, created by companies with a specialized intent to market and sell these users more and more services (Deffective By Design, n.d.). In such a model, of course, widespread replacement of simple paperwork by EPD tablets is slow or unlikely to happen, meaning that despite of the fact a lot of people talk about greener lifestyle and reducing the humanity’s footprint on the planet, what is actually happening is that more useless devices are being produced and no footprint gets actually reduced, with an interesting side effect of tunneling money (resources) from the nature’s wallet into pockets of certain corporations while many of these corporations actually use technologies developed and distributed at no cost (open source), in a communism-like philosophy.

In the following paragraph, an assessment of the ability of mobile devices to capture information will be provided. In the light of the previous discussion, it is obvious that mobile devices have enough image processing and computing power to capture all kinds of data, and an extensive set of add-ons has been developed by various third-party companies to facilitate such capture of data. From the point of view of ergonomics, mobile devices can not be comfortable for writing texts, but as for automated and assisted data collection, or manual collection through a simple interface – these are at least as good as desktops, or even better. Of course, because of the “human” factor, the efficiency of work process could vary. On the other hand, it is important to understand that excess-functionality consumer mobile devices and technologies like QR-code are mostly marketing-oriented, and could be unsuitable for certain other applications or organizations. For example, one can hardly think of other uses for QR-codes as for providing a supporting URL to the advertisement of a product or event or an the other end – replacement of regular barcodes in factory automation or fully automated inventory management – since QR-codes do not have human-readable text or a number below the machine-readable image.

When choosing a platform for one’s hosted commercial application, being a national corporation, as described in the essay assignment, one should target widespread devices, or all flavors of widespread devices. On the other hand, when picking only one, the platform that presents an open ecosystem of developers and users should be targeted, because it is obviously the most sustainable kind of organization for informational technology ventures.

In conclusion, it is important to mention that various components of information technology are entangled with organizations, businesses, politics, commercial agendas and other factors in a very neat and not always transparent manner. One can always choose the way of following the crowd, or some sort of “a foolish consistency” (Emerson, 1847) but on the other hand, one may not always care of the politics of others and follow his own commercial path, trying to maximize his utility and profits. Finally, one can strive for the greater good in open-source or in his deeds, like trying to produce a cheap simple solution for the use by the general public. Finally, sometimes what is popular and widely accepted can be the best possible, highest probability solution to question at hand; so maybe mobile devices with excessive interfaces and lists of “features” indeed are.

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