The age of ubiquity



present, appearing, or found everywhere:

his ubiquitous influence was felt by all the family

cowboy hats are ubiquitous among the male singers

'Ubiquity', Oxford Online Dictionary

Recently, the iPhone celebrated it's fifth birthday. There was a lot of discussion about the impact it has has on the tech industry. One comment stood out to me as incredibly pertinent.

The disruption was not that we now finally had a nice phone; it was that, for better or for worse, we would now never again be without a computer or the Internet.

The iPhone and Disruption: Five Years In, Daring Fireball

For the majority of the personal computing age. the desktop computer was undoubtedly the dominant form factor. What this meant was the the computer was not simply a device, it was also a place. Most people placed their computer in their home office or living room, and they generally shared that machine with the members of their household. With the machine effectively tied into a certain space, it had the effect of projecting the types of things the computer was used for, such as word processing and working with spreadsheets. Eventually, laptops became affordable and powerful enough to function as the main computer for most mainstream users. But many problems remained - battery life was never as long as the day, they almost always required a separate bag (making packing one a conscious decision with advantages and drawbacks), and in the end, using one was still pretty awkward withou a desk.

At the dawn of the internet age, dialling into an ISP with a 56k modem meant paying a call charge to your phone company and forfeiting the ability to receive calls while you were online. Not only were you tied to a place, but you werelimited in terms of the amount of hours you could use. By monopolising the phone line, there was always pressure to disconnect, just in case someone was calling. The desktop internet was was limited across two axes - temporally and spatially. Broadband and cable services eliminated time restrictions, and while the development of Wi-Fi was undoubtedly a great step forward, it did not liberate computer users from the some sorts of limitations that hounded the desktop PC.

Some might argue that the era of ubiquitous computing began with the iPhone in 2007. I would disagree. The ubiquitous computing generation began on July 11, 2008, with the launch of the iPhone 3G. The 3G brought with it a couple of crucial steps forward, in both hardware and software. On the hardware side, it brought 3G connectivity. 3G was much faster than the previous EDGE networks that were implemented on the original iPhone. On the software side, the App Store was launched, allowing third parties the ability to submit their own native applications to Apple that would run on the device. When you added this to the strong foundation that was the fluid, multitouch OS and the first genuinely useful web browser on a mobile device, the potential was obvious. Apps and 3G made the iPhone 3G the first device to genuinely conquer the spatial limitations of the personal computer.

When applications and services combine the power of the iPhone, iPad, Mac and web, there is never a time or place where we are without access to our data and the tools we need to manipulate it. Our files are always in sync and accessible using client software custom built for the exact dimensions and features of the devices we are using at the time. This is a profound and extraordinary step forward. The minimalist design of iOS devices means they simply become the application that you are using. They are the tool you need, whenever and wherever you need it. All of this brings us closer to the things we really want to be doing. Fiddling, formatting and tweaking a deviceoften serves only to impinge on our creativity. It's been said a thousand times before, but iOS has provided the most personal computing experiences I've ever had - passing my iPad around to share photos with my family, using Wikipedia to solve a trivial argument in a bar, being able to follow events from across the world on Twitter on the go. Every iOS user would have many examples like these to share.

What makes a great ubiquitous experience for me? It needs to be native on both phone and tablet, and available on the desktop, either natively or through the web. There are very few moments throughout the day that I am not on one of these devices or at least have one within easy reach. When an idea strikes you or you have some time to kill, being able to access your content or tools quickly and easily is crucial to the illusion that the device is the thing.

For me, buying a universal app (iPhone + iPad apps, the ones with the little plus on the buy button on the App Store) goes a long way towards ubiquity. I know some developers cannot afford to sell what might feel like two apps for one price, particularly with prices as low as they are on the App Store, but, boy, my purchasing finger gets really twitchy when I do a search and see the plus sign. It is often the main deciding factor for me in an App Store purchasing decision. I dream of a day when the Mac App Store is included and users can get an app for three devices with one tap. That would even be harder on developers, but for users of multiple devices it would be a thing of beauty. You would would not be buying an application, you would be buying a system. A solution to a problem with a single tap. One can dream, I suppose. As much as I'd like this, I don't see that as much of a possibility in the near future.

For an app to feel ubiquitous, it's hosting needs to be fast and reliable. Most users don't know what's going on behind the scenes, but they know when their app isn't working or their stuff isn't there. In this age of computing, the back-end is the app just as much as the interface is. Developers know this, but it really is so important.

For us consumers, it means go 3G or go home. When I bought my first iPad, I was still studying. Most of the time I was at home, on campus or driving between the two locations. 3G was unecessary. Now I'm commuting, you couldn't get me to consider a Wi-Fi only iPad. The personal hotspot thing is a hack, an inconvenience, a hassle. Having to use a workaround like that is fine in a pinch, and currently is necessary for on-the-go laptop usage, but it's murder when it comes to ubiquity. Those thirty seconds of setting up and connecting to the hotspot often is the difference between using the best tool for the job and choosing to hack away on your phone instead. I long for the day where data is sold per user, not per device, in some sort of pooled arrangement. It's happening in the US at the moment, but is pretty expensive and still has a flat charge per device. How about five gigabytes for $50, regardless of devices? Five gigabytes is five gigabytes, no matter how you slice it. A MacBook Air with cellular would be more justifiable in that situation, too. USB modems, like hotspot, are hacks. Real ubiquity when on the road means picking a good network, too. If you want frictionless mobile computing, it's not coming on a carrier with spotty coverage. You have to trust the connection implicitly. No one network is perfect, but it has to work almost all the time when we go to use it otherwise the illusion is broken.

A truly ubiquitous computing world is on the way. Eventually, none of our media and content will be stored locally, except maybe for caching. Super-fast, affordable LTE data will rain down from the skies into our devices. The price of flash storage will be less important, because you will only need enough space to store your client apps. It won't matter where you are or what device you are using, your content will be there for you. Then the computer disappears, doesn't it? Software can solve so many of our problems if we let it. For now, this seems like ubiquitous utopia, a fantasy. But it's not that far away. I don't think it is difficult to see the pieces clicking into place as we speak, one by one.