December 25, 2008

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Portability rising
The year mobility was key

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Maybe it’s a troubling commentary on the discomfort we Americans feel in our own homes. Perhaps it’s an insight into the human desire to always be somewhere other than where we are, doing something other than what we’re doing.

Whatever the reason, 2008 saw people using mobile technology like never before. Of course developments in miniaturization make every device smaller over time, but the number of products now available would weigh down even the sturdiest of Bat-belts.

Competition is heating up, with companies trying to stake out market share at any cost. Google finally jumped into the phone software game with an open source operating system. Verizon has started unlocking the GPS chips in its phones for use without a monthly fee. And that’s not all.

• Netbooks: These little buggers have started cropping up everywhere. PCs in general have gotten so powerful that a tiny, stripped-down laptop is still able to accomplish most basic tasks, like word processing and Web surfing. The One Laptop Per Child program introduced the idea of a small and cheap portable computer for educational organizations in emerging markets in 2005; Asus grabbed that idea and sold it to tech-savvy consumers in 2007. This year, dozens of manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon. Virtually all of them use Intel’s 1.6GHz Atom processor, making the competition between them more about features and style than raw speed.

Oh, and price. Unlike the $2,000 ultraportable notebooks of yore, these small wonders actually cost less than larger laptops — between $300 and $500 for most of them. All told, analysts expect more than five million netbooks to be sold this year.

• Wireless coverage: What goes better with tiny laptops than the increasing number of Wi-Fi hotspots in cafés, hotels and airports? Even the Wendy’s fast food chain is starting to roll out free wireless Internet access. It’s getting harder and harder to justify paying for it anywhere. Especially with Radio Shack offering Acer’s Aspire One netbook for $99 if you sign up for 3G mobile wireless coverage for two years at $60 per month, eliminating the need for Wi-Fi altogether.

And speaking of the mobile phone network...

• Texting: This relatively old technology really got some new life in 2008. Like never before, the text message became integrated with other aspects of people’s lives, both on and off computers. No longer was it relegated to pat communications like “@ store wat cereal u want lol.”

Instead, you could start receiving text messages notifying you of changes to your friends’ Facebook status, or their latest Twitter posts. Even more exciting, you could post back to those Web sites (and others) by sending a text message. You can pretty much completely interact with these sites, and by extension their other users, without ever visiting the sites themselves.

Texting even became a powerful tool in the realm of politics. At just about every Barack Obama rally, attendees were asked to sign up for alerts on their cell phones. The campaign could then update supporters quickly and target messages very precisely. Volunteers could be recruited at the drop of a hat with a broadcast message in a specific area. The campaign showed another clever use of mobile technology with its Houdini program, which updated voter lists on get-out-the-vote patrols’ handhelds in real time, letting them focus on those who hadn’t yet gone to the polls.

Next year, mobile Internet speeds are slated for another upgrade to 4G. Will 2008’s mobile migration pale in comparison?