Screen-Less Mobile Computers: Talking Changes Everything

Guest author Jonathan Stark is a mobile consultant, Web evangelist and an advisory board member at Mobiquity, a designer of customized mobile computing applications.

Until 2007, "computing" meant sitting down to use a PC with both hands. When smartphones came on the scene, we got used to computing with one hand while standing, walking - even running.

As great as they are, smartphones have a significant limitation: the touchscreen. You have to be able to look at the screen, and have at least one free hand to touch or type. If you're doing anything else - driving, cooking or changing a baby, for example - they're practically useless.

This limitation leaves us disconnected for big chunks of our day, which means that there is a demand for a screen-less mobile device. .

You Talkin' To Me?

How will we interact with these new devices? By talking to them. With Apple's Siri and Google Voice Actions and Voice Search, early versions of voice-controlled devices are already here. And more sophisticated versions are on the way. Yes, voice input is imperfect, but so was the touchscreen before Apple perfected it for the iPhone. 

But it's not just about voice commands. A truly voice-activated device would listen to you 24/7. A phrase like, "I wonder . . .?" or, "Who was . . ?" spurs it to action: with blinding speed it searches the Web or your personal database to find the answer - and whispers it in your ear.

Imagine that your mobile device is proactive. It reminds you to grab an umbrella on a rainy day, or lets you know that a friend is at a nearby cafe and would like company. It learns your habits, your likes and dislikes, and becomes acquainted with your friends and family.

For example, say you favor a certain route to work; your mobile will tell you when there's an accident or construction blocking your way and suggests an alternative. Your best friend's birthday is coming up: your mobile knows that you're both basketball fans. It checks your calendar and that of the home team and finds tickets for an upcoming game. 

Be Prepared

In this new world, designing a compelling mobile app just got a lot more interesting. Make a good smartphone app has never been easy. Now, remove the screen and try it again. Sounds impossible. But there are things developers can do to prepare for the next revolution.

1. Create Smart Content.You no longer know where your content will end up. Some devices support cascading style sheets (CSS), others don't; some render HTML, others won't. The screen-less mobile device is just on the horizon. This level of diversity requires that content be truly device-independent. Your content management system (CMS) should contain metadata describing the content, be free of display information (RTF, CSS, or HTML) and organized by what the content is (article, blog, or tweet, etc.) rather than its context (pages, screens and windows).

2. Build Open APIs. Content and services should be made available via Application Programming Interfaces. Think of these APIs as your core offering. Other departments in your organization, registered third-party developers and even consumers should have access them without requiring ongoing assistance. 

3. Start Small. Smart content and open APIs are both back-end considerations. Once it's time for you to build a front-end, start by designing and building for the most resource-constrained device that exists. It's much easier to scale up from a small mobile experience than it is to shoehorn a big design into a little package. 

When the smartphone market is disrupted by the next revolutionary mobile device, you're don't want to have to start over. The principles outlined above will prepare you in a way that is useful in today's mobile computing environment, and for the inevitable disruption to come.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.