Monolith149 Daily

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A Pocket Computer

This is a re-post of a blog post I wrote on 2004-08-31 17:48 on Monolith Daily about an idea of pocket computing that Jim K and I had. I’ve made a couple of minor grammatical corrections.

Computing in the Future

One day while walking in a mall, c. 1982, the idea of the tablet computer suddenly became very clear to me. It wasn’t an original idea, I’m sure. I wasn’t exactly aware of Alan Kaye’s ideas at the time, as far as I know, but I was always impressed by the newspads in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I had the full vision of a notepad-sized computer which would replace computers, books, HBO, and a portable music device.

[Added Note: I had read the book The Mote In God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle but didn’t remember that it also contained the idea of a pocket computer.]

In recent years I’ve watched DVD movies and digital videos on a laptop and I’ve seen actual tablets finally come into use by people around me in the office.

Today, in a discussion with Jim K, we had another vision that seems to be a reasonable direction for computing. Again, I doubt this is original and this certainly could be something that we’ve read somewhere. Some of these ideas have probably floated around Xerox PARC for years and even Alvin Toffler, in Future Shock wrote about everyone carrying around a little personal computer/information device. (Also I know that some of these ideas, particularly about wireless access like Blue Tooth, have been around for a while and even implemented.)

A “Pocket Computer,” Literally

Think of the “key-chain” digital drives that have recently become popular. These are little fob-sized devices that plug into a USB port. Now, for the maybe-not-so-distant future, imagine a device about that size that has a whole computer built into it. This computer has memory, a fast CPU and wireless connectivity over a short range (say less than a meter or so), similar to Blue Tooth. You can just carry this computer around in your pocket.

The Desktop

On your desk is simply a keyboard and flat panel. When you sit down at your desk, your pocket computer automatically finds and links to your keyboard and screen. Voila! You have a desktop computer.

This happens when you walk up to any desk top screen and keyboard. (There are appropriate security measures of course, so just any device can’t grab your system).

A Laptop?

Notice there’s no need for a laptop. You can carry around a tablet of sorts which is just an I/O device (display, pad, and maybe keyboard). When you activate this tablet, it links to your pocket computer.

The same is true for a PDA. Again, this only needs to be an active I/O device.

Add a linkable headset and you have a iPod-like device.

Really Portable

You don’t have to carry a laptop home. All you do is get up from your desk and leave.

When you get home and sit down in front of your desktop screen-keyboard-mouse station, your pocket computer links and activates it.

A New Sneakernet

Though sending output to a printer via the typical, networked way still has advantages, imagine printing a document so that it’s spooled onto your pocket computer. You get up and walk to a printer. Your computer finds the printer, links to it and the printer prints your pages. (Yeah I know, this is an old idea).

It’s All About Storage

These pocket devices would primarily be storage devices that just happen to have computers grafted onto them because the computers are so cheap and tiny, they are inconsequential. If you need more storage, you buy a new keychain-sized device and throw it into your pocket. You get another computer for free.

With a little direction from you, the new device and old device could find each other and either transfer your files to the new one or link themselves together into storage/computing array.

Clusters galore

Throw several pocket computers in your pocket. They could link themselves together into a redundant storage array. Or into a computing cluster. Or both simultaneously.

Fill a bucket with them and you have a high-performance computing cluster. They decide how to link themselves together in a useful topology.


With a pocket computer set up to be a backup device, whenever your pocket computer finds this “backup buddy,” it makes copies of all changed files. I think I’d keep a backup buddy on the dresser and one in a desk drawer at the office.

If your pocket device fails, just grab a backup buddy and and it becomes your new “master.”

ID, Security Badges, Wallets and Keys

Such pocket computers could fill the roll of smart id badges (doors unlock for you automatically because the device identifies you).

They could be your electronic wallet. When you walk out of a store with a cart of goods, your pocket computer could check you out and pay for you. It could link to a display on the cart so you could confirm the purchases and okay the payment.

Your pocket computer could even start your car, and unlock your house.

(It could require some input from you so that just anyone that picks it up didn’t have access to everything).


When you pick up a book reader (if it’s different from a tablet), the pocket computer would link in to give you access to books it stored.

Other Media

To buy media (music, movies, books, software) at a store you just select the media you want to buy and they are automatically downloaded to your pocket computer. If you buy them on-line, they are downloaded to your pocket computer from there.

On-line Access

When you are near a network access point, your pocket computer links in and connects you to the Internet.

Your Watch?

Just a linked display.

Do You Want to Play a Game?

Your kid sits down in your room with friends, with your wireless game controllers (with displays), and all your pocket computers link together in a network. With the right game software, you can all play a shared game. Software Distribution

Here’s one way to do it. This is actually an old idea but with fast enough and convenient enough I/O, it might become feasible.

You buy your software on-line and it’s stored on a central service. Your whole computing environment is virtual and on-line. When you want to use a new pocket computer, it links to an on-line access point and downloads all of your software. This lets you install your software transparently, including moving it to a new pocket device.

You don’t have to worry about media or proof of purchase.

Security Notes

Of course security for such a device would be critically important. You should be able to register devices you allow it to link to. This could be a white list and black list approach. Such a device could work like a child and ask, “Can I link to that device?”

“No, not that one. That’s a stranger.”

Or, you could simply say, “Don’t ask me about linking to anyone else. I’ll tell you when you can!”

Where do these crazy ideas come from?

First, computers are shrinking. I don’t think anything I’ve described above needs more CPU power and memory than we have today. If computer technology continues to shrink the processor, then the power we have now will grow smaller.

Server class machines are shrinking now to card-sized blades so desktop systems will continue to shrink, too.

Wireless is becoming more and more common, from cell phones that link to each other with Blue Tooth, to wireless LANs, to wireless keyboards and mice.

Storage continues to shrink. We have solid state storage today, in our cameras, in our iPods, and in our keychain drives.

When computers shrink to become smaller than the storage device, and cheaper, an interesting thing happens. In the past, we used floppies, CDs and removing hard storage devices to move information from one computer to another (when not just transferring over a communications channel of some kind). What if the computer is small enough to be built into the storage device? -—cheap enough so that every storage device has it’s own computer?

Some problems to overcome

One problem you would have to solve is power. The little pocket computer needs a good battery. Batteries are shrinking and getting better (look at cell phones).


One thing I clearly didn’t anticipate in 2004 was the smart phone in its recent form. It’s actually played most of these roles. It hadn’t occurred to me how powerful an attached, high-resolution display screen would be.

There’s also one wireless technology that we still don’t have, really. Did you catch it? We can’t wirelessly connect a device to a high-resolution monitor. Yes, we have “cast” capability but that’s to a receiver plugged into the display. I can’t play a movie on my phone and have it display in HD on the TV withouth plugging an HDMI cable into my phone.