Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Reason #39 That Nothing Gets Written For Phones (Yet)

Moore's Law can imply a lot of different things depending on what you place as your primary priority. If it's raw compute power with no concern for power use or heat dissipation, you get huge boots every couple of years. If you're after more compute on the same power budget, just wait a while. Predicting what we'll be using in a couple of years is a related-rates problem where the backstop conditions are "any trend that can't continue won't" and whatever market forces drive the non-CPU constraints. Datacenters hit a wall in terms of power use and heat dissipation, and the result is that Intel, AMD, and Sun now are plastering the Financial District with competing billboards touting their FLOPS-per-watt in lieu of GHz ratings.

I suspect that we're in for some similar reckonings in the mobile device world, but the constraints are very different from what the PC world has been up against. For one, the overall power density in phone/PDA batteries is increasing, but only at about something between 9 and 18 percent a year depending on who you read. Competing for this meager power budget are:

So the assumption that we'll get more raw CPU power for PIM-style apps and web browsing in next year's model is related as much to the design goals of the industry as it is to any particular technology trend. But the big barrier for the use of the mobile web is, and has been, the UI. And I don't just mean the layout of mobile browsers or the way pages get formatted. No, I mean the way people actually punch alphanumeric characters into these things. The available options all revolve around form factor. Clamshell == numberpad + 3tap. PDA-ish == thumb-board, widscreen == on-screen keyboard. All of these options put at least one set of characters at a tremendous speed dis-advantage. The biggest common (fast) input element is some sort of directional input system with a center-click button. It seems like a minor quibble in the pantheon of problems with getting the web onto phones in a meaningful way, but I think it creates a real problem for the "flatness" of the internet. In the same way that there's huge pressure to get a short domain name for startups, I can easily envision a scenario where there's a bidding war to get in the top page of links on the carrier's (non-resettable?) mobile browser homepage. And carriers don't leave money on the table. They hate open markets almost as much as they hate you.

So where does that put us? If there's good news, it's that eventually carriers will learn to sell bandwidth at a reasonable price ('cause that's how they'll keep customers) and beef up their minimum-spec processor and browser requirements, but I don't think it'll happen for a couple of years. First, the UI issues are going to require something like ubiquitous thumbpads or something more drastic (chording?) to turn these devices into anything but low-end digital cameras with super-slow upload facilities. Secondly, screen density improvements and the attendant bandwidth chewing properties of bitmap graphics are likely to keep CPU/SOC spare power in check until most phones sprout dedicated graphics co-processors (and if they already have, then they're just competing for power). Once screen density, contrast, color depth, and touch sensitivity start to settle down, we'll probably be left with a sudden improvement in processing budget, but it's unclear how long that'll get soaked up by piggier OSes before trickling down to applications.

The last hurdle for making the mobile web a reality is bandwidth and latency. Luckily, bandwidth will probably get figured out. Latency, OTOH, won't. We'll just have to learn to with that one. Handset turnover rates combined with improvements in carrier networks give me some hope that by the time we have realistic browsers on phones we'll be sucking down content over relatively wide pipes. Of course, when the carriers have the "a ha!" moment around fixed-price mobile data is the big unknown. There's more money to be made if they give up a little control, but that goes against everything they know and believe.

Guess I should wrap this up, but next time, I'll detail my experience with getting smartphone emulators installed, the SNAFU that started me down this entire train of thought in the first place.