Revisionist Histories of This Mobilist

Its taken me weeks to get to reading Tomi Ahonen’s 2010 Mobile Almanac. And to be honest, its had more to do with the PDF reader on my N97 than anything else (its bullocks to quote my UK friends). Nevertheless, as I read the 180 pages today, I started to ask of myself some questions towards mobile that I think have influenced why I see what I see.

For example, yesterday and today, I’ve thought about the intensity towards mobile that I’ve had and have come to realize that my history with computing started with things being mobile. I had the calculators, watches with too many features, Speak-and-Spell devices, etc, that pretty much set me on this mobile path from early on.

And this wasn’t because PCs and other sit-down computing wasn’t available. It just wasn’t available to me. For example, when others were getting the in-class computer tutor, I was denied access to that PC and had to learn how to read, research, and search without it. And then when I did get to a PC, I had very little time, so I learned quickly how to take the information that I needed, and then put it in a format that was portable to my usage.

Before a few hours ago (writing this I mean), I had assumed that one of the other reasons for my mobile-bent had to do with the fact that one of the first real personal computers that I owned wasn’t so much declared as one at all – although it very much was when we look back. It was 1st generation Nintendo GameBoy. It was this device that allowed me to stretch my brain (Tetris) and be entertained (Jordan vs Bird) moreso than any books or PCs could to date. And because it was personal media to me, I felt no need to share the findings of things I learned with others unless we swapped games, talked about high scores, etc. In a sense, the GameBoy really demonstrated to me early on that computing – when its relevant – doesn’t need to be much larger than a 2.2in screen at all. And if the software is done right, you could be incredibly productive.

And so to me, its no surprise that I’ve taken to mobile as my primary means of computing for the past decade (first PDA was purchased in Aug. 2000, a Palm IIIxe). All that has evolved out of that – going paperless, learning web design/development, messaging & comm behaviors, Mobile Ministry Magazine, etc. – has come from this history of needing information and communications for short bursts of time in mobile and non-mobile contexts.

Which is what made reading the Mobile Almanac a bit funny today. I had my N97 sitting in front of me, landscape mode with the QWERTY keyboard exposed and Bluetooth headset attached, while using the Nokia N800 to read the Almanac. You see, the N800 has a basic, but very nice PDF reader. And given the physical size of the screen of the N800, it makes for a great reading device when sitting in a coffeeshop.

I wasn’t mobile (per say), but I was scaling-up my computing so that it would be more accessible to the type of work that I wanted to do (reading).

This is where I see my history of computing differing from that of a lot of people – and definitely many of the louder persons who write about this stuff. I didn’t start on the big screen terminal. Yes, there was some diving in and out, but I couldn’t rely on that. My early computing usage consisted of short bursts of the technology for specific needs. And normally, I had to modify my expectations of the tech for those short bursts.

This is important, because what would happen is that in the longer moments in front of a PC (or any media really), I started to break down the technology and behavior into a reoccurring statement, “I’m bored.”

Side story: my family got its first family/home PC somewhere around 1995. My dad wouldn’t let me touch it for fear that I would want to take it apart and see how it works (it happened a lot). When I was finally allowed on it, it was for MS Encarta use (CDs) and a few games. When I was finally allowed to play those games for longer moments, I would beat them with increasing speed (my dad turned them into progress tournaments where he’d play for a week or more and then I’d get to play, trying to keep up with him). First, games would take a month to beat, then, I would be the famous Doom and Doom II in about two weeks (max 1 to 1.5hrs per session). Then came Rise of the Triad, beat that one in 24 game hours. Soon thereafter, the computer became less of a challenge towards sitting on for long periods, but I had to push towards other areas with it for it to remain a viable window into infotainment and entertainment. By the time I purchased my first PC in 1998, I had already learned how to rebuild PCs, do some PC support tasks, and started learning more about the behavior and adoption of the Internet and its resulting communities.

So, by the time that I got that Palm, I was merely capitalizing on the kinds of actions that would eventually pan out in all other aspects of my life.

From the Palm, I started adding accessories, applications, and behaviors that would mimic some of the PC-like computing that I was noticing, but didn’t have the extra tethers of resource and life consumption. In effect, I was groomed to do computing mobile, and one of the reasons for my discontent for how things are with computing has to do with the fact that its a non-mobile square being forced into a mobile circle. Bleh.

As I sat in the coffeeshop, I took a call from a longtime friend who purchased an iPhone just this week. The person has had the Palm Treo and Centro before then, and so I was interested in hearing about her (re)discovery of computing through this different device. Throughout the call, she mentioned how free she feels with the abilities that the iPhone presents to her. The entire time, I kept seeing how what she is opening up to now has been what I’ve been opened to for a few decades now, and that I’m constantly pushing, changing, and adjusting to understanding more about not just computing, but how I live and relate to the world around me because of it.

There’s this impact that comes when people get this revelation. This idea of a mobile device that can respond to what you need, and at the same time empower a ton of other kinds of imaginations realized. I know how I felt, but for her it has opened up things that she previously only saw from the sidelines. The change in her perceptions has been striking. So much so, that she’s had to pay more attention to app purchases, time spend in front of a new laptop, etc. Things that you’d normally not even pay attention to, but because the personal is now bigger than the computer, it has caused a behavior shift.

I can see in the future when we are looking back at a half decade of mobile computing, we will find more of these stores. More of these revised histories of computing that will start with “hey I was always [mobile] computing,” rather than mobile is something that I just stumbled upon. And as that happens, I think we will see a major change in how we do computing. We will scale our usage up, rather than sideways or down.

The result will be a different way of interacting with ourselves, our lifestyles, and the world at large that will speak towards something neat. It will be more practice than myth, and look at lot like other memories of our youth, but it will also be a more open history. One where we will do more of the crafting of the notes between the margins, where what we see will need to be adjusted to a lens that’s personal and global in ways we’ve never seen before.