Adrift in a ubicomp world

by Dirk Knemeyer

It is generally accepted among the design intelligentsia that Apple is designing better software and hardware than pretty much everybody else in the core areas they choose to play. Yet there is one area where they have notably failed - if only by non-participation - yet stands as one of the most vital hardware solutions in the present and future: docking.

The last time I used a PC regularly - six or seven years ago, now - my docking station was a cherished part of the computing experience. It enabled me to take my laptop from home to work and back again, and simply plop it down to immediately be connected to my external monitors, power supply, external speakers and any other peripherals I might have been using. It was incredibly user-friendly. When I moved over to a Mac full time because I was designing more it was a rude awakening to not have that option. The process of hooking up all the right cords in the right places in multiple locations falls somewhere on the scale between annoying and irritating. That is hardly the connotation a computer company wants to have with their customers. Yet Apple, as they are wont to do, keep plodding along doing things “their way”, with this essential little convenience for the power user entirely ignored.

Unfortunately for Apple - or, perhaps fortunately for consumers if Apple is forced into action by market reality - the way people are computing is changing quickly, and in a way which makes the docking station not only a more important tool, but also a more complex hardware solution than it has ever been before. Over the last decade laptops finally began to eclipse desktop computers in sales, a trend that is only accelerating each year. In its generally accepted incarnation, the function of a docking station is to enable the laptop user to have a desktop-like user experience in one or more different semi-permanent locations. With so many people using laptops, and with computing becoming a far more central part of each of our lives thanks to the rise and ubiquity of the internet, all of these laptops are getting increasingly more use than is historically the case, thus necessitating even greater importance on happy computing environments.

The complexity of the situation is much greater than simply laptops, however. Portable computing devices - ranging from netbooks to the pocket computing-like power of devices like the iPhone - are growing in popularity much more quickly than full computers themselves. We are entering a world where each of us have a personal computing ecosystem of one type or another, and the need to potentially dock a variety of devices.

Using myself as an example, I currently own two laptop computers, an iPhone, and an iPod Touch. Acknowledging that today I am more toward the early adopter side of the spectrum, this sort of a computing configuration is going to be closer to common in the future. What would I need to be properly “docked” today?

I would like to be able to have a small console, into which I plug all of these devices. Doing this should then automagically sync up any data or updates as appropriate. It should provide power to all devices, and it should also properly display each of the different “computers” on monitors that are in my immediate proximity. Blue skying for a moment and thinking beyond current hardware restrictions, I would have two small monitors, one for each little device to do the syncing and updating there instead of on the same display as the other computers, then I would have a large (30”?) monitor for each laptop. Additionally, I would need the appropriate IO devices - keyboards and mice in the current hardware paradigm - for each of the devices in a usable and ergonomic setup.

Ah, ergonomics. To take a brief detour, the biggest issue with all portable computing devices today is the dreadful ergonomics. The technology and data entry industry are littered with injured and disabled workers who suffer from computing in un-ergonomic workspaces for long periods of time. There is precious little focus given to ergonomics in the development of computer hardware, and it is time we look at the entire computing workstation as something that contributes to the health of the user. I myself have recently become injured in part due to this issue, and it is impacting the rest of my life in a very negative way. Not a good thing. So, a smart docking solution would have excellent ergonomics as a central part of the equation.

Returning to my personal docking needs around my various devices, the computing needs I described for myself above will soon become relatively standard. Most people will have only one full-sized computer (be that desktop or laptop) but will have multiple devices. There will also be the issue, as computing becomes more integrated into our personal lives, of needing to dock two or more people in the same basic place. This would already have utility in professional contexts such as with paired coders.

All of this makes it somewhat astounding that these problems are not, to the best of my knowledge, being solved well by anyone! Apple isn’t even making an effort. Particularly when you consider the ergonomic necessities, I’m going to go so far as to say that effective docking of computing devices is the most important hardware challenge currently facing our industry. Why aren’t more people talking about it? When are we going to see solutions? What are those solutions going to look like?

It can’t be left to the CEO of a software services firm to sound the clarion call on this issue. Necessarily, it needs to begin with the hardware manufacturers and perhaps trickle down from them to the peripheral providers. But let's start seeing some traction on this essential computing issue.

Topics: Design, apple, hardware, ergonomics, predictive, Blog