'The Mobile' Is Reliably Unreliable

This weekend is the 21st anniversary of the death of science fiction author Isaac Asimov. I feel like I've been reading his novels, short stories and essays since the beginning of time. He was a big thinker, the inventor of the "three laws of robotics," and the predictor of events that are only now beginning to unfold. Asimov was no Michel de Nostredame. He did not predict from dreams and visions. He used his fundamental understanding of science, natural laws and logic to extrapolate. While Asimov was a master at it, predicting self-driving cars, big data analytics (which he called psychohistory) and the evolution of calculating machines into the Internet, it's something that any one of us has the equipment to do. Asimov died too young and would have had much to say about the technology-driven world that he helped inspire.

One of my favorite Asimov stories is The Last Question. In this story he spans billions of years in a few thousand words and follows the evolution of computing from a giant mainframe computer attended by specialized engineers to handheld devices accessible to anyone and connected by a wireless network. In this single short story Asimov planted seeds that later inspired the mobile technology that we hold in our hands and the sci-fi thrillers that we see on our screens.

But there is a problem with Asimov's extrapolation. One that plagues just about every futurist and every entrepreneur from Faith Popcorn to Dustin Moskovitz: The unreliability of the mobile.

We still live in the wired web and we still see the world and our future though eyes well-adapted to a world where the network is always on, always high speed, always clean and too cheap to meter. The mobile, as opposed to the web, is much like the dial-up modem world of the 1980s. A mobile phone is either online or offline and at random times. A mobile connection has a variable speed and it's not easy for a web designer to predict in what order the elements of a mobile web page will load. A mobile connection has variable quality. You can have five bars and still not have a connection to a mobile web site. Mobile bandwidth is metered and the days of all-you-can-eat consumer data deals are in decline.

As futurists and entrepreneurs we have to take off our web-colored glasses to really see how this reliable unreliability paints our customers relationship with our products. For science fiction writers like Asimov the variable quality and speed of a mobile signal, which is essentially a radio signal, creates many problems for a tightly scripted plot. But Asimov foresaw this problem and decided that the wireless network of the future would exist in hyperspace. Today we call this idea quantum entanglement. Right now it's a deus ex machina but I'm sure one day we'll be walking around with a smartphone that can always make a call or stream a video.

Until then we hyperspace networks we have to build products that take the unreliability of the mobile into account. There is a big push in the media world to respond to the mobile with responsive design: A way of constructing and serving a webpage so that it adapts to the device and the screen it is rendered on. Responsive design is a great idea out to avoid the hassle of building mobile applications and give users a more consistent and accessible experience. But responsive design doesn't handle the unreliability of the mobile. It uses the same web technologies that were thought up long before your phone or pad became a computer.

I wanted to catch up with Game of Thrones so I could start watching season three. I have a nice long train ride to work which is perfect for reading, email and watching a TV show. I downloaded HBO GO to my iPad and got ready to follow Rob Stark and Tyrion Lannister as they romped around Westeros. My iPad has an AT&T 4GL connection and the first thing the HBO GO app did is warn me that by watching Game of Thrones it would use up the bytes in my data plan. Regardless of the risk, I decided to press on for duty and honor. But ultimately I failed in my quest. The video stream would stop and start and stop again. Often the picture frozen on my iPad screen was some risqué image that I didn't want the other train passengers to think I was purposely ogling. I gave up.

A smarter set of technologies is what we need for the mobile. During periods of high speed and high quality bandwidth, mobile apps should anticipate what we're going to read or watch and cache it for later. Every mobile app should work as well offline as online. Don't make us have to remember to pre-download or prepare for being offline. And don't make us pay for bandwidth used to download ads or stream video we've already paid for. Asimov felt that a computer, like any machine, was fundamentally a labor-saving device. That's what we need mobile apps to be: a mental labor-saving device so that the unreliable mobile seems just as reliable as the web.