[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]
When I’m asked to give a talk about technology I like to pull out my iPod Touch, wave it at the crowd and point out that ‘in the future’ it will be a supercomputer with parallel processors and terabytes of storage.
Well, it seems the future has arrived rather earlier than I imagined, as a new service called ‘Oosah’ has just started offering a terabyte of storage for the iPhone/Touch ‘in the palm of your hand’.
On closer investigation it seems that they aren’t ripping the case apart to install some cool new quantum-effect anti-matter memory that has just emerged from the labs, which is a shame.
Instead they have a website that gives your phone access to remote data when you’re on the move and lets you copy files back and forward. As long as you’ve got a signal or a wireless connection you’ll be able to play music, watch photos and read documents as if they were local.
It may be useful, but it isn’t of course a new idea, as corporate power users have been connecting to the office network from their mobile devices for many years, and even mere mortals have had access to gigabytes of disk space courtesy of their webmail services.
I often email large documents to my gmail account just so I can read them on the move, and before the iPod made it easy to store files directly in its memory it was the simplest way to ensure that I had a copy of a presentation or paper with me.
It isn’t even a new idea for the iPhone, as online storage providers like box.net have let users access their files using a web-based application for over a year now, although having a whole terabyte is certainly exciting for my inner geek.
But it will appeal to iPhone users as part of the growing trend towards using the iPhone/Touch as a general-purpose computer, something that has become a lot easier since Apple released the upgraded operating system.
Lots of interesting applications are out there already.
I can post directly to my weblog using the WordPress application, which even lets me write posts while offline and publish them when I get a connection.
I’ve installed FileMagnet, which lets me drag and drop documents from my desktop computer onto the Touch so that I can read them while I’m offline. It’s incredibly useful for technical reports which I would never want to print, but also works surprisingly well for ebooks too.
And a new iPhone application, DataCase, turns your iPhone into a wireless network drive that you can see from any of your computers. You can even allow other people to access your phone, so if you want someone to have a copy of a presentation you’ve written they can simply take it over a wireless link.
As with box.net, this is nothing new for other phone users. I was transferring files to my Sony P800 five years without thinking it was remarkable and Nokia phones can even act as independent wifi hotspots thanks to JoikuSpot.
But the screen size and quality, multi-touch capability and usability of the iPhone interface, combined with the increased processing power that today’s small devices offer, means that the experience is far more satisfying for users, and this is where the iPhone is clearly a game-changer.
It is not about numbers. iPhone sales date are hardly significant compared to the size of the handset market worldwide, and even the total number of smartphones in use is comparable to the basic Nokia 1100, which has sold over two hundred million and continues to be important in non-Western markets.
Apple has shown what is possible in a phone, and now ther handset and PDA manufacturers are starting to offer new interfaces and new services in order to compete in a way that is beginning to change the way we think about handsets.
A phone used to be just a phone. As they became more powerful and got better screens they started to turn into PDAs, personal data assistants, but their network capabilities were limited to voice and SMS until smartphones began offering access to the ‘mobile Internet.’
Today’s devices they are more like nodes on a network, accessing a range of services, some local and some remote, and it seems that they have joined the trend towards utility computing, where processing and storage happen wherever it is cheapest or most convenient, instead of being tied to specific computers.
This is often called ‘cloud computing’, because everything happens in a vaguely understood cloud of online servers. Today’s handsets are now capable of using the cloud just as well as laptops and desktop computers, and they may even find more ways to use its untapped potential.
New phone operating systems like Google’s Android, or new versions of old phone software like Windows Mobile or Symbian OS, which recently announced that it would become open source to encourage developers to work with it, will allow developers to exploit powerful handsets and bring us closer to a world where we can tap into as much storage and as much processing as we want, whenever and wherever we want it.
As I sit and play with my iPod Touch I can start to imagine what that world will be like, because of all the technology companies out there Apple seems best at helping us to dream rather good dreams.