Monday, 27 February 2012

Protecting the enhanced life

A pocket computer
Every now and then someone proudly produces a ten-year-old mobile phone and announces that they have no need for modern technology. ‘It makes phone calls and it texts,’ they say. ‘What more do I need?’ But they miss the point.

As the organizers of the Mobile World Congress are quick to highlight, mobile technology is far more than just phoning on the move. It’s for books, monitoring health, navigation, making payments and connecting with friends. It might involve a Kindle or an iPad, a GPS device or a widget to give keyless access to your car. For the moment, though, the smartphone is the most significant device – and this is where our smug old technology owner misses the point. A smartphone isn’t a mobile phone that does some other fancy stuff. It’s a genuine, accept no substitutes, pocket computer (as mentioned in the Blondie song – about 2’ 41’’ in the video) that happens to be a phone as well.

At one point most technology pundits would have told you the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) was the way forward. I would have been one of them. It seemed impossible to cram everything you needed for a viable pocket computer into the form factor of a phone. Yet that’s exactly what a smartphone does. I reckon about 20 percent of the usage and about 5 percent of the value I get out of my iPhone is making phone calls and texts. The rest is much richer.

If I look at my mobile phone usage over a week, yes there will be calls and texts. But I will also have listened to music, found where I was (and how to get somewhere else) on maps, dropped into social networks, looked up information online, played a couple of games, read a few documents, located my nearest favourite coffee shop (and found out when it was open), paid for a coffee, looked up a friend’s address, repeatedly used my diary and made a few notes. Oh and used it to take some photographs too.  Not to mention deploying it as a torch.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the phone in your pocket has the potential to enhance your life. It’s a small scale human upgrade, without the need for a Matrix-style socket in the back of your neck. That’s quite some power provided by that tiny pocketable box. But, as Spiderman so wisely observed, with great power comes great responsibility. What happens if I lose my smartphone? Or drop it? Or have to use it in the rain? There’s a whole lot of disaster waiting to happen if I put so much of my life in the hands of an all-too-frail device.

There are broadly two things I need to protect to ensure that my mobile life remains smooth – my data and my way of getting to it. Until recently, the data was the key. It’s a pain, but I can get another phone. If I lose my data, though – addresses, diary, photographs, music – it’s gone for ever. But now the reality has flipped. Increasingly the data isn’t on the phone, it’s in the Cloud. There isn’t a single bit of significant data on my phone now that isn’t either replicated or coming direct from the internet. But if my phone stops working when I’m using it to find my way across a city, I won’t be happy.

I would never use a phone without a case. The best smartphones look very pretty, but I’d rather cut down the visual wow factor in exchange for protection. So far so good. But when I use my phone outside I’m also challenged by the British weather. Electronics and water don’t go together particularly well (as my daughters have discovered when they respectively dropped a cup of tea and a glass of orange juice over their laptops). Standing in the rain trying to follow a map or send a tweet (both of which I’ve done) is a scary business.

You could put the whole thing in a waterproof casing, like an underwater camera – but that swings the balance too far the other way, rendering the device impractical. Instead I would dearly love my phone to have the ability to repel water, a super power that does apply to at least one smartphone, Motorola’s new Razr. If I’m honest, it’s not a phone I’d buy, but Apple please take note – I want that protection.

The Razr uses a technology called Splash-Guard developed by P2i. It’s an interesting application of nanotechnology, incorporating a coating applied using a plasma. Plasmas are fascinating – the fourth state of matter, next up the scale after a gas. It’s bizarre that we don’t meet them sooner at school, as plasmas account for around 99 percent of the universe’s detectable matter, and are much more obvious than gasses because they often glow. Where a gas is a collection of atoms or molecules, a plasma is a collection of ions – atoms that are energetic enough to have lost or gained electrons and become charged. Stars are mostly plasma, and flames usually contain plasma.

The technology bonds to the phone and its internal components at a molecular level, producing a coating that causes liquid to form into droplets and roll off. You can see how it's applied in their process video (a bit corporate, but bear with it).

I really want this stuff on my phone. This video shows just what it does very nicely:

Does this mean if I have a suitably protected device in the future I’m going to be happy standing in the pouring rain using it? Probably not. I will always be a little wary. But surely it makes sense, when so much of your everyday business depends on something as potentially fragile as a smartphone, to do what you can to protect it? Smartphone manufacturers take note.

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