The arrow of time

Ivan Voras' blog

I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop!

The Android platform has potential. I've seen the excitement about the new Droid devices and they look good enough to maybe replace my P1i - which I think is one of the greatest mobile phones ever, but only after it's hacked, unlocked and heavily customized because the default firmware is practically castrated by the telcos. The first thing I wanted to know is - is there a ssh client for it. Apparently there is (though rudimentary) so the next question is - what about VNC client? Yes, there is one, but then I remembered that I would also like a VNC server...

The quality of "productivity" applications like these is very open-sourcey, in the negative way - the apps seem hacked up, rudimentary and sometimes barely working; it's still a long way to go. But that is not what I would like to write about now - I would like to write about how I dislike laptops.

Laptops, even netbooks, are really clusmy devices. The only sensible way to use them productively is by sitting at a table, a mode of use which mimics desktops. Of course, there are circumstances when this is necessary but not always and, I think, not for me. I have two laptops - one a somewhat big 15" HP business model and another a 9" netbook, and if I ever need to carry a computer with me, 95% of the time I will bring the netbook, simply because it is lighter and more convenient to carry. Even so, it is too often too heavy and too inconvenient, because to carry it I need some sort of a bag, and I don't really like carrying a bag the whole day.

What I would like is to have a mobile phone that replaces the netbook and possibly also the bigger laptop, and I think it is technologically possible, only yet unexplored by companies that could produce such a thing.

Here is a scenario I'd like to do with the mobile phone:

  • Connect to a network via the cell phone network or WiFi
  • Start an application on it, like ssh client or a light-weight word processor (think "AbiWord" not "MS Word"), do something in it, but not close the application
  • Go to the office, use rdesktop or vnc to connect to the phone and continue working on whatever I started using a proper keyboard and mouse, disconnect, go somewhere else (to lunch, home, whatever), continue working on it, etc.
  • Have the phone OS automatically synchronize my files on the phone with my home or work server and/or desktop (my "working set" of documents - i.e. without multimedia files - is around 2 GB which is trivial to maintain on all current devices)
  • If I work on a document and need a more complex application, close the document on the phone, then either connect to the phone as a "network drive" from a desktop and use a "big" application on the document or use the autosync to work on the document from the desktop and have it mirrored on the phone

The reason all this is possible is that we all know it is possible since we have worked productively  (e.g. with Win95 and MS Office 95) on machines with 256 MB of RAM and 8 GB hard drives. A 1920x1080 video framebuffer, which would be needed to work comfortably on the phone when connected to from a bigger, desktop system, needs only about 8 MB of RAM, and with a bigger screen all of the fancy animations that are visual cues to make a small screen comfortable to use are not needed.

I really want to seamlessly use same application (the same process in the OS sense) from both the phone interface and a bigger, full-screen interface. In the latter case, my desktop will be a sort of dumb client (or a "terminal") for the phone.

I do not expect to play games on the phone, especially not in the desktop resolution, and I do not expect a behemoth application like MS Word on the phone. Unfortunately, todays Open source applications are way too bloated for something like this. KDE and Gnome both have really gone over the edge and OpenOffice was too big and monolithic for its own good even before it got open sourced. Firefox is also too big but fortunately, WebKit looks good enough. There are also examples of small Office-like application suites that are usable.

#1 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-07T13:04 by Matko Andjelinic

Generally the idea of replacing a laptop with a cell phone is really great. But I'm curious, why would you like your desktop computer act as a "dumb" computer? What's wrong with the opposite - your desktop computer as your main environment that runs all the software you need and thus use any computer including your mobile phone as a client to this desktop? That's the configuration I have been using for the last few years and I must say it works great! It matches the scenario you described (start work now, continue later without restarting processes). Another great thing about this configuration is that the main desktop PC is a strong machine, can run practically anything and at the same time does not drain your mobile environment's battery and also heating of your mobile device does not occur. You also don't need to synchronize important documents on two devices. (Of course, periodic backups need to be done, but that's a different story)

I understand that one reason why you would like processes running on your mobile phone is network availability. But today Internet connectivity is omnipresent and it will definitely continue improving.

 

#2 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-07T13:23 by Ivan Voras

I'm not trying to replace my desktop, just my laptop :) The desktop should remain for all purposes that need a powerful CPU, storage, multimedia, etc. I want to carry everything I need with me and not have the desktop turned on all the time.

There are more reasons:

  • Current Internet connectivity via GPRS & 3G is too slow to use remote-desktop applications from the phone productively.
  • Even where there is fairly good connectivity, it would be draining on the batteries to transfer all the framebuffer data back and forth - having full apps on the phone make it possible to work on the phone without connectivity.
  • The desktop applications are not suited for small screens such as those found on phones and have no interface to phone services (virtual keyboard, typing prediction, phone network services, etc.)

It would probably be more complicated to adapt the desktop to be used remotely from the phone than to have everything on the phone and use it from everywhere.

I'm not advocating replacing all computer with smartphones but a coexistence with ubiqutous data replication (since each of the individual devices might break but if data is stored elsewhere it will survive).

#3 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-15T02:30 by John G

I would check out the Motorola Droid, it is not crippled by Verizon in any way...

http://www.droidforums.net

#4 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-18T15:08 by Alexander Leidinger

Ivan, X11 was designed to work on such slow lines (they didn't had better ones). The current set of applications have too much graphics, but if you configure everything down and use a decent X-protocoll-compressor, you do not need much bandwith. Even the latency is not such a big issue then. Have a look at http://google-opensource.blogspot.com/2009/07/releasing-neatx-open-source-nx-servier.html

But I agree that there are other reasons not to use your screen from the desktop-machine on the phone.

#5 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-18T18:22 by Tomasz

Nokia n900 is probably better choice than Android. At least it's developed in open.

#6 Re: I'd like my cell phone to replace my laptop

Added on 2009-11-18T18:25 by Ivan Voras

Can Maemo be an X11 or VNC server?

#7 Re: x11 performance

Added on 2009-11-19T01:27 by Ivan Voras

I know *in theory* X11 should be usable in low bandwidth situations but I simply don't find it so. Very occasionally I need to interact with a particular GUI app at work (actually, it's a Java application) and "native" X11 networking is much much slower than (tight)VNC.

I'm tunneling both over compressed SSH and accessing it from 4 MBit/256Kbit ADSL and VNC is simply much more responsive. I'd guess Java isn't exactly a well behaved X11 application but *shrug* - today is not 20 years ago...

#8 Re: x11 performance

Added on 2009-11-19T03:00 by Ivan Voras

Actually better than X11 and VNC I'd like Microsoft's (yes!) rdesktop and its underlying Terminal Services implementation. This combination has one extremely useful purpose for this environment that I think cannot be implemented (as in: design flaw) in X11/VNC: the ability to resize the screen on-the-fly. For example, my home computer runs 1920x1080 and if I log with rdesktop in from my work computer which has a 1280x1024 screen the "maximized" windows I left at home automatically adapt themselves to be maximized on 1280x1024 and the windows that would be out of bounds of the new screen get more-or-less magically moved somewhere where they can be seen.

And rdesktop is more similar to NX (which AFAIK cannot be run on FreeBSD, btw) than VNC in that the traffic is vector-based but compressed.

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