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The Most Personal Device

Doc Searls

Issue #179, March 2009

Today it's the iPhone. Tomorrow it's a Linux handheld.

Several years ago, I gave my wife a Nokia phone that I hoped would get her to start texting. It was a small phone that twisted open to expose a qwerty keyboard. I showed her how to use it, and later sent her a test message. Her reply was “no”. She never texted again with that or any other phone.

Until last December—that's when she got an iPhone. Within days, she was expert at texting and is still schooling me on how to use the iPhone I bought for myself last summer.

She calls the iPhone her “laptop replacement”. She still uses a laptop, but its main job is to serve as a wide-screen iPhone that also syncs calendars, apps and podcasts.

Yes, I know the iPhone is not a Linux device. But that's not the point. The iPhone is the modern equivalent of the Apple II. It models the future and cracks open a vast new territory for development.

The iPhone is the first phone that subordinates telephony to the rest of what it does, which could be anything. It's a handheld computing device that happens to do telephony. It's native to the Net, not just to the phone system. And it opens a category that Android and other Linux-based phones will fill. That category will have at least these three virtues: 1) it will be native to the Net, not just the phone system; 2) it will be generative—that is, it will open rather than closed to the possibilities for what can be developed for it; and 3) it will expand the range of what individual human beings can do while moving about in the world.

That last virtue is not shared with desktops or laptops, because those are mostly limited to what you can do sitting down.

At LinuxWorld August 2008, I went by the Access booth (www.access-company.com), where they were showing off the vast range of devices using the company's Linux development and deployment systems. These included mobile phones, PDAs, Internet terminals, car navigation systems, set-top boxes, business operation terminals, musical instruments, video game consoles, IP phones, home appliances and other devices. But mobile phones were the main thing. Amid Access' literature was a poster showing off 219 different “Access-powered mobile phones”. All running on Linux, presumably.

A couple Access employees greeted me, and I hit them right away with question begged by the iPhone's success: “How long before the cell phone companies realize they're running a data system and not a phone system?” They were taken aback at first, but gave thoughtful responses. “It'll be a long time”, one guy said. “But it will happen”, the other guy said. (See “WiMAXing Linux” on page 16 for more on that.)

Then we started talking about the mobile data business, which in their case was supporting development of apps for “Access-powered” phones. I asked if their system supported audio yet. One of the guys said no. At this point, I felt comfortable pulling out my iPhone and showing one app among many that was changing my life: a stream tuner for Internet radio. It wasn't perfect, but because of it, my iPhone had become my main radio. I can “tune” in .mp3 streams from anywhere that has an exposed URL or IP address. I can listen anywhere in the US for however long I like. In cars, I jack it into the AUX input on the dashboard. Thanks to the unlimited data deal I have with AT&T, I don't worry about drinking too many bits.

After showing the two guys my iPhone playing a Boston radio station, both of them felt comfortable pulling iPhones out of their pockets as well.

My friend Keith Hopper made an interesting observation recently. He said one of Apple's roles in the world is finding categories where progress is logjammed, and opening things up by coming out with a single solution that takes care of everything, from the bottom to the top. Apple did it with graphical computing, with .mp3 players, with on-line music sales and now with smartphones. In each case, it opens up whole new territories that can then be settled and expanded by other products, services and companies. Yes, it's closed and controlling and the rest of it. But what matters is the new markets that open up.

Android phones began hitting the streets late last year. They aren't as slick and easy to use as the iPhone, but that doesn't matter. In two years, all current models of both will be very old hat. What matters is that Android is Linux-based and an open platform. Those two facts alone will help accelerate the inevitable conversion of the cell-phone system to the cell-data system.

Android and other open platforms won't just be media recorders and players, game machines, phones, musical instruments, radios and texting devices. They will become wallets. They will shake hands for us and help us do business. They will help us be more of what we are, which is human.

As creatures, we humans are distinguished not only by our intelligence and use of language, but also by two other remarkable characteristics: our mobility and our expansiveness. We are relatively hairless and walk on two feet because we are runners. A well-conditioned adult human can run indefinitely. We also expand our very selves though the things we invent, hold and manipulate. Our senses spread out through our clothes, our tools and our tech by a process called indwelling. When drivers say “my wheels” or pilots say “my wings”, they mean it personally. The perimeters of our selves are not bound by our bodies. They extend to include the tech we use. To become expert is to enlarge ourselves, whether as carpenters, drivers, pilots or whatever.

There is an evolutionary progression from desk to lap to palm. Apple has done us the favor of pointing the way. Our job is to follow the path and open the territory. When we're done, “desktop” and “laptop” will sound as antique as “mainframe” and “minicomputer”.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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