Thoughts on why I think Android Phones are so cool

When I was growing up I read a lot of Science Fiction. I still do actually.

Lots of things that I read about have come to pass. Science Fiction has been an amazing predictor of new technologies and gadgets.

For example Wikipedia has a short list of inventions predicted by Robert Heinlein that have come to pass. The list includes:

  • Automatic light switches (from “The Man Who Sold The Moon“)
  • Hand dryers (from “Coventry“)
  • Drafting software (from “The Door Into Summer“)
  • Mobile phones (from “Space Cadet” and “Assignment in Eternity“)
  • Moving walkways (called “slidewalks” in “Space Cadet” and “slideways” in “Beyond This Horizon“)
  • Solar panels (from “The Roads Must Roll” and “Coventry“)
  • Waldoes (remote manipulators) (from “Waldo“)
  • Screensavers (from “Stranger In A Strange Land“)
  • The San Francisco-Oakland BART Transbay Tube (from “Citizen of the Galaxy“)
  • Waterbeds (from “Double Star“, “Stranger In A Strange Land“, “Beyond This Horizon“, and “Waldo“)
  • Vehicle remote keyless system (called a “magic wand” in “The Number of the Beast“)
  • Online newspapers (from “Beyond This Horizon“)

One thing I don’t see on that list is Pocket Computers. I know that I have read about Pocket Computers in various SF stories, but I’m not sure if they were Heinlein stories.

In any case with the development of the latest Smart Phones (including the iPhone) I believe that we have achieved Pocket Computers.

Laptops and Netbooks are very powerful, but are still pretty bulky. And they always will be as long as we need keyboard input and large displays. They have their place and now that the batteries have a reasonable life (3+ hours) I love having one.

But the Smart Phones…

I am very impressed with my Droid. We joke at work that when three or four of us are sitting around with our phones that we have more compute power at the table than they use to run the space shuttle. But it’s not really a joke because it’s true. The space shuttle is still run by 1980’s vintage IBM 5150 computers with 1MB of RAM.

I’m pretty sure we have more compute power around the table than they had at all of NASA when they were running the Apollo missions.

One thing you need to understand is that I was born in 1962 – that officially makes me old. It also means that the Personal Computer didn’t arrive until after I graduated from High School. I didn’t grow up with computers in the house. I got to take a basic programming course in Jr. High School using a teletype hooked to a mainframe through a 300 baud modem and I loved it, but the Apple II didn’t arrive until a few years later.

Cell phones were not around until much later either. Sure, they have been around since the early 80’s, but no one I knew had one until the mid to late 90’s or so. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 1999 – after swearing I would never want one.

So going from starting out programming on a teletype to working on this blog entry on my cell phone – that’s a lot of change.

For the younger generation – including my children and many of my co-workers – smart phones are just another cool gadget.

But for me – who grew up reading SF and dreaming about the future – smart phones are an indicator that the future is arriving.

I now realize that I’ve been looking for the Pocket Computer for quite a while. I got a Sharp ZQ-2200 Electronic Organizer with a whopping 32KB of storage when they came out. (Still have it actually.) It’s actually not a bad bit of kit – it has an address book, calendar, clock, calculator and a qwerty keyboard. But it’s really just a glorified address book.

I got a Sharp Wizard OZ-7000 when they came out (still have that too). It’s like a ZQ-2200 on steroids. But still really an address book and calendar.

The Apple Newton was pretty close to the Pocket Computer – and ahead of it’s time, but then Apple screwed the pooch on marketing and it died before it could get good. I always wanted one, but never owned one.

I thought the Palm Pilot was getting pretty close to the Pocket Computer. I bought a Pilot 5000. The Pilot was different than the Sharp Organizers. It had hand writing recognition – that really worked. You could download and install applications to do all sorts of things. I loved my Palm Pilots. I ended up with a Palm III and then a Palm V. But then they started putting phones into them and charging what I thought was an outrageous amount of money for them. When my Palm V died I stopped caring about Pocket Computers. I actually started using a paper based organizer system for a while, but lost interest in that too.

Lots of my co-workers and friends have iPhones. Don’t get me wrong, I think iPhones fit my definition of a Pocket Computer. But I have huge issues with Apple’s licensing agreements and corporate attitude. I would never buy an iPhone or an iPad. I am a huge proponent of the “I bought it, I own it, I get to do with it what I like” attitude. Which is about 180 degrees from Apple’s.

I’m a huge proponent of Open Source. Of being able to tinker. I’m vehemently anti-DRM. I firmly believe that if it’s a computer, I should be able to run whatever I like on it. With the iPhone that’s just not possible. With the iPhone they censor the applications. With the iPhone they dictate what languages you can write in. With the iPhone they make you jump through hoops to get your application into the market.

With an Android phone I can go download the SDK for free. I can write an application for my phone in whatever language I like. I can install that application on my phone and run it. And I can make it available to everyone else in the world without having to jump through any hoops.

And think about all the technology and cool stuff that is crammed into a Smart Phone these days:

  • A GPS that can tell you where you are – anywhere in the world!
  • Mapping and navigation software that can use that GPS and give you turn-by-turn directions to any address.
  • Voice Recognition that can be used to dial the phone, look up an address or search the web.
  • Web browsing
  • Email
  • Appointment Calendar
  • Send instant messages – in a variety of formats – to anyone in the world
  • A camera – the camera in my Droid has a 5MP sensor – that’s the same pixel count as my Canon Digital Rebel SLR. Of course the SLR takes much higher quality photos – but a 5MP camera in a phone? Amazing. (Yes, I know there are higher pixel counts out there, but still.)
  • An amazing amount of storage – my Droid comes with a 16GB Micro SD card and there is a 32GB card coming. 32GB in a phone! I still have hard drives in computers that are smaller than that!
  • An endless list of applications including:
    • Databases
    • Music Searching (like Shazam)
    • Games – tons and tons of different types
    • A map of the stars in the sky
    • An editor to edit MS Word and Excel documents
    • Full function scientific calculator
    • WiFi Scanners and Signal meters
    • Programming languages
    • and the list goes on…

I have to declare that the current generation of Smart Phones have reached the Pocket Computer realm and will only continue to get better. Any Smart Phone out there with the correct application could perform any of the Pocket Computer functions that I can recall from SF stories.

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