Back in 1999, I waded into the sloppy morasse that was my SF universe. Something about it had piqued my interest; it had been literally been more than a decade since I had given it much thought. I'd even decided that I'd give up trying to write SF, because I just couldn't do it any more.
But I began thinking about it as a setting for a role-playing game, and TSR had just released their excellent Alternity system. And so I spent some time working on a Player's Guide, and the next thing you know I was running a game in it, and once that was over I began working on the sequel--only the sequel was not going to happen, so I wrote it as a story instead. And that got me to thinking about the next one, and the one after, and so by mid-2006 I had completed three novels set in that universe.
One of the features of the RPG campaign was the PDA--personal digital assistant, or pick your acronym--which was an all-purpose telecommunications device, computer access terminal, and financial terminal. The infrastructure for this was both ubiquitous and invisible.
I had not abandoned thinking about the SF universe during my long dry spell; the PDAs had not been added before the 1990s. But there had never been any mention of them in any of the stories before I wrote the player's guide for the Alternity campaign, which I called "Builders' Legacy" for several very good reasons.
Work on another series of stories, set in a different world, had gotten me to thinking about the future of computing. How would we access data? What would we do for communications? How about buying and selling in a virtually cashless society?
The precedents for a portable computer terminal in SF are legion. Two examples are Star Trek: The Next Generation, which had the PAD; and Pournelle and Niven's characters used small pocket computers with wireless mainfraime access in King David's Spaceship and other stories set in the same universe. So that wasn't any great leap of intellect to figure that's going to be part of our future.
But the PDAs that were on the market in 1999 were--while useful--not widely used. Although a PDA like a Palm Pilot is a useful tool, it wasn't compelling enough for wide adoption, and gaining access to the Internet with one was both expensive and difficult.
Cell phones, on the other hand, had gained the ability to take pictures, and already had the ability to store names and phone numbers; companies were loading the things up on features in order to get people to buy their phones rather than the other guy's. And one of those features was the ability to send and receive e-mail, text messages, and even access the Internet, in a limited way.
I realized, then, that the PDAs used in my stories evolved from cell phones. Not from the Palm Pilot or pocket computers--cell phones.
Cell phones had a couple advantages. First, they were already connected to the communications infrastructure; communication was their whole reason for existing, and there was a nice thick network of transceivers making sure they stayed connected. Second, the actual cell phone hardware was shrinking precipitously--good old competition!--and getting more power-efficient, which is why the manufacturers could now fit all kinds of extra stuff in them and still keep them pocket-sized.
I imagined a device about the size of a trade paperback book--about 6x8", and maybe an inch thick. The display was a touch display, full color, using an OLED (or 23rd century equivalent) display so a backlight wasn't needed. Then under the OLED display was a solar panel, so the thing could power and/or recharge itself from ambient light. Behind that was the backplane assembly, consisting of all the hardware, batteries, etcetera. The entire thing could be encased in a sealed housing and probably could be made light enough to float.
It would have a fingerprint reader (essential for financial transactions), a camera for video telephony, taking pictures, and recording video; although it would have a good chunk of on-board memory, the user's actual data would be stored in a mainframe...somewhere...and where didn't matter because the infrastructure was robust and invisible.
The economics of the thing were a little more nebulous, but not much. The idea was that the user bought a PDA (costing, say, $200 in today's dollars for a basic unit) and then paid some fee--I thought $20 per month--for local network access (that is, access to anywhere on his homeworld). This included telephony, e-mail, computer access, financial transactions, and storage for data.
Any computer could serve as a "node" for this network. It had to meet a certain specification and certain software had to be installed on it; but the owner of the computer would receive payments from a variety of sources for the use of his on-line storage and access point. The security was mature and robust, so gaming the system was virtually impossible. The owner of the computer would never know whose data was stored on it, nor what it consisted of--and in fact it wouldn't even contain a complete set of data for any one user, since the system used a highly redundant algorithm for spreading data across several machines. Access was fast enough that the actual physical location of the bits didn't matter. (The letter "a" could be in New York and the letter "B" in Los Angeles....)
For an additional $100 per year the user could gain off-world access. This made it possible to make calls, send mail, and surf sites from anywhere, to anywhere, in explored space. (The telecommunications system was largely instantaneous across interstellar distances due to the physics of hyperspace.) Interstellar access wasn't useful for most people, most of the time, and of those that did use it, most would merely make phone calls or send e-mail. So, I thought, that was pretty cool. It was logical, affordable, and a reasonable extrapolation of technology.
(It was a linear, rather than exponential, extrapolation--exponential is actually the way to bet, but it's hard to see the vertical part of the curve. How high is up? That way lies Singularity, and I took pains to limit technological expansion in that world, because it wasn't meant to explore the boundaries of the man-machine interface. It was about other stuff.)
Then, the iPhone.
When I first learned of it, I thought, "Yeah, that's it." And then, not long ago, I saw one commercial for the thing, and all it consisted of was a pair of hands interacting with the thing. And I realized that the iPhone is about 90% of what I was talking about in my stories.
It has a context-sensitive touch screen; there are no buttons, just the touch screen. It has in-phone storage, the capacity to download things from elsewhere ("upload and store" is part of the missing 10%), and it does a lot more than just take and receive calls. Like most of the hoi polloi I haven't been able to play with one, so I have no idea how the interface works.
But it really does lend credence to my prediction that cell phones would push mobile computing farther than PDAs would. I think iWas right.
It's too damn expensive for me to buy one, though. I worry about losing my $20 TracFone, for crying out loud, but at least I don't have to worry about someone stealing it. That wouldn't be so with a $400 phone!