At yesterday's Future Forward retreat, Reed Sturtevant and Katie Rae organized a lunch table discussion on Smartphones as Building Blocks, i.e. what kinds of applications transcend the boundaries of an individual phone and become something large of which the phone is a part. When he was at Sun, John Gage famously said "the network is the computer." Now in the mobile world the computer, or more properly what we do with computers, may involve multiple devices of various sizes.
When Reed brought up this topic, my first thought was the way doctors want to use the IPhones and iPads they are already carrying to retrieve patient records, lab results and even real-time vital signs from wherever they happen to be. Other people brought up using the mobile phone as a controller for other systems, from games to TVs. After some more discussion, I proposed the following taxonomy of roles that a mobile device could play:
- User Interface - bringing the screen to the app. Rather than putting a screen and keyboard on everything, why not use the ones that are already in your pocket. An early examples were "universal remotes" for your TV, such as L5, Flipr, Bobby and Sonos, but the phone can also be used to control toys and games, or to interact with a fixed object such as a kiosk or billboard.
- Identity - A mobile phone can supply two factor identification: something you have (the phone) and something you know (a password you type into the phone.) This can be used to make purchases or unlock a door. OpenWays and Assa Abloy provide this capability to hotels, and Apple recently applied for a patent on Peer-to-peer transaction devices and methods.
- Storage - this was the original use of the iPod - to store music
- Connectivity - the phone is the obvious place to establish connectivity to the outside world, since it already contains a radio to connect to the cellular network, but many phones also include WiFi, Bluetooth, and Near Field Communications.
- Docking Station - In addition to radio links, the phone usually includes a USB or proprietary connector that can be used to hook up anything from a headphone to a blood glucose meter.
Many interesting applications combine multiple roles, such as accepting data from something plugged into the USB port and passing that up along the wireless link. We are just at the beginning of seeing what's possible.