I Lost My Laptop…and It Didn’t Really Matter

This article was written by Steven Hoober. 

Steven Hoober has been documenting design process for all of his 15 year design career, and entered mobile full time in 2007 when he joined Little Springs Design. His work includes Designing by Drawing, the O’Reilly book Desiging Mobile Interfaces, and an extensive reference mobile resources website to support it. Steven has led projects on security, account management, content distribution, and communications services for numerous products, from construction supplies to hospital recordkeeping.

Steven’s mobile work has included design of browsers, e-readers, search, NFC, mobile banking, data communications, location, and OS overlays. Steven spent eight years at U.S. mobile operator Sprint, and has also worked with AT&T, Qualcomm, Samsung, Skyfire, Bitstream, VivoTech, TA Telecom, The Weather Channel, Omni Symmetry, Thwapr, FaceDialPillPhone, Copia, IGLTA, St. Luke’s Shawnee Mission Medical Center, Lowe’s, Hallmark, uClick, Bank Midwest, and IBT.

He consults on UX strategy and design with 4ourth Mobile, and writes a regular column on mobile for UX Matters magazine.

Well, I didn’t quite lose it. In a rush to get a cab from MoDevUX to the airport, I left my MacBook charging some distance away from me. With so many devices in my bag, no, I didn’t notice it was lighter or less bulky. About five people texted or called to tell me this, but by then I was through security at Dulles, with long lines, and it was too late.

In the time it took to FedEx it back to my home, I found myself oddly not inconvenienced. My wife mocked me for being old and going senile early. It is expensive, so I needed to arrange to get it and of course if it was truly lost I’d have had to reset passwords and so on.

And of course I didn’t do much work on the plane ride home (except for sketching on paper), and I couldn’t sit in the back yard and type like I am now, because I had no good platform that was portable and with a keyboard. But I didn’t loose any data, and got to work as soon as I got home.

We Live in the Cloud

That’s because we all live in the cloud now. Almost all my data is synched, so available online or off. And I can do work locally, remotely, or both at the same time. I wrote the first version of this article on my handset while on the airplane home (off the network). It seamlessly synched when I got to the ground, so I edited on a tablet, and did more research and writing of it on a laptop and desktop computer.

My day to day use involves:
• Dropbox, to store pretty much all of my files, so I can access them from anywhere. It even is set to automatically upload any photo or screenshot I take on a handset.
• Google Drive, to share files and collaboratively edit with coworkers and clients.
• Chrome, shares bookmarks, open tabs, and even search history.
• Adobe CS, or whatever they now call it. I don’t use their file service, but updates are automatic, seamless and I assume if I lost a computer I could just push a few buttons to get new software instead of finding DVDs.
• EyeFi, automatically loads all the photos taken off my DSLR into my computer.
• Web based tools of all sorts. From Gmail and Google Calendar, through to detailed items like backlogs and bug trackers.
• Even my corporate email is available as a web service, and as an installable app on my handsets and tablets, so I can get to it anywhere.

It has gotten to the point, I now realize, that it is more exceptional I store something only locally.

Networks of Delay

Something I have been putting in my presentations for a year or so is that we don’t actually use cloud services, we live in the cloud. Martin Geddes told me, in an interview, that “it’s all just computing. There is no network, there is no cloud, there is no device. All the dividing lines are in your head. This is only distributed computing; that’s all it is. There is an opportunity to recognize that networks are just large, distributed supercomputers.”

Of course I do enough work for broader user populations, and emerging markets to understand that this is partly only because I am an upper-middle-class Westerner. Only 1 mile from my 50 GB fiber network is the first Google Fiber connection, which puts it to shame. But most people in the world have no wireline connection at all, have spotty mobile service, and can barely afford data at all.

So what about slow networks? What about slow computers. Martin has an answer for that also. If there are no networks, what is going on?

“What we’re doing is trying to translocate information, and all the machine does is impair that process. Possibly infinitely. You have a choice over where it goes, and that’s it.”

Why do I need my laptop at all? Because the form factor—the screen size and keyboard—make it among the easier platforms to do this sort of work on. Why do I need a mobile handset or tablet then, if the laptop is so good? Ubiquity. I can have them anywhere, and ideas that would be delayed or lost are now captured and manipulated, wherever I am.

Graceful Failure

Design for delay, and failure is not great. Yesterday, I simply could not get Dropbox to synch up a few files so I could take work from one computer and put it on another to share over a corporate network. Eventually I realized that the Dropbox app had crashed on the one computer. But it took too long to figure that out. On another of my devices, the Google Drive app hasn’t worked for weeks.

More to the issues of the other few billion people, what if the network is terrible? Can we provide the same data in a more reliable and low-bandwidth method, like over SMS? Often, yes. There are a lot of money making projects in Africa that are SMS and IVR based.

The Future of Computing

Some day that the constantly changing nature of computing means the PC, the tablet or something else will die. I say traditional computing has already died. As you’ve seen, my MacBook is almost incidentally a classic computer full of local memory, but it’s deeply, integrally part of the network and connected to the rest of the world.

Next, I hope and expect to see the hardware and OSs of desktop computing change to support this better. Getting and sustaining network connections, using location services and so on within MacOS or Windows is harrowing compared to the same on any mobile platform. My mobiles almost insist on being connected, and on sharing. It’s sometimes harder to be disconnected today.

And that embodies my vision of the future. Platforms will shift to support new ways of working, and new expectations, or they will die.