Progress is lumpy. The future is attained in a series of epochal strides, each followed by a lot of relatively inconsequential shuffling forward. The invention of the internet (and especially the consumer-friendly web) was a rare giant step that motivated immense adoption of computers and digital lifestyles. A global marketplace of online citizens spawned gadgets, software apps, corporate gold-rushing and other feverish shuffling.
Even with the opulent gadgetry we admire and enjoy, the whole expanding tech bubble seems to be reaching for something beyond itself. The incremental improvements of personal technology don't thrust into the future as much as push against constraining walls of the present. Sharper screens and thinner computers are delightful results of corporate development cycles. But we are tethered to the present, which one day will seem primitive in retrospect, by two unglamorous bridles: power and connectivity.
Technology is pushing toward this: complete and frictionless integration of digital and organic life. If that sounds like a forecast of electronic implants, it might come to that. (My dogs have embedded ID chips under their skins.) But I'm really talking about a future in which we do not drag the internet around with us, but are as immersed in it as we are in the offline realm. It is not an "Other" that we go to, but an "Also" that is always at hand.
Mobile represents the internet's true venue and destiny. I am not predicting the demise of computers sitting placidly on tables; I only partly believe in the Jobsian post-PC paradigm. I do believe that the internet is meant to be free in the most important sense: free of impedance and artificial damming. That means flowing with equal current at home, on the road, at a desk, in a park.
Two things ground this ideal in the US like ropes holding down a primed hot-air balloon. One is batteries and the other is the torn and expensive patchwork of connection services outside the home. Fixing the power and connectivity problems will place society into a future containing a changed human relationship to digital realities.
The Battery Problem
Freedom and tethering are not bedfellow concepts. Mobile devices have liberated people from desks to a certain extent, starting with laptops (my first was a Compaq Portable, which traveled as a bicep-busting suitcase) and evolving to smartphones and tablets. But the dependence of our mobile devices on quality time with power outlets is a reality check on how mobile our tech really is.
We have a biological affinity for recharging batteries, inasmuch as we recharge our bodies with food and sleep. In that context, our metabolic batteries are more pathetic than those of a 10-pound laptop. My iPad lasts longer than I do most days, and my BlackBerry is likewise heroic. Still, the battery levels of my many unplugged devices are always on my mind. A bit of badly timed forgetfulness can stop me from working or playing or making a phone call. The migration of our digital lifestyle to mobile is untrustworthy in this regard.
The issue of mobile power is a race along narrowing lanes. Power-hungry components are shrinking as devices become smarter, more capable and more necessary. Batteries cannot shrink at the same pace, or at all, and putting extra batteries into freed space adds unwanted weight. The challenge is to create endurance at no cost to usability.
In labs around the country, new research into improving existing battery benchmarks looks promising, if not paradigm-changing. We can realistically hope for strong incremental improvements in lithium-ion stamina, perhaps along the lines of eight to 10 times current battery life. I don't know whether laptops, phones and tablets with a useful unplugged time of a week would worsen my forgetfulness problem, or solve it. I would prefer a year, but I've probably read too much science fiction.
The WiFi Problem
Between the times when our devices are sullenly leashed to power outlets, we are out and about in a ragged realm of patchwork connectivity. In the US the tethering is complex, expensive, erratic, frustrating and primitive. High-end solutions, like 4G cards, are expensive and spotty. Whether relying on telecom networks or WiFi hotspots, staying connected is just as worrisome as staying powered up. There is a "haves vs. have-nots" aspect to universal connectivity; just as income and population are concentrated around urban cores, so is cell and WiFi service.
The antidote to a capitalist maze of competing internet on-ramps is municipal service. Government-supplied connection transforms the mobile internet from a premium product to a utility. Countless municipal initiatives have started, withered and died on the vine in the last decade. Chicago intended to ramp up city-wide WiFi in the middle of this decade, and abandoned the project in August 2007 for lack of public financing. This year mayor Rahm Emanuel is reviving a scaled-down effort to connect the downtown city area with free WiFi. The hyperlocal blanket is probably the best replicable model for moving past connectivity gridlock.
At the other end of the scale is the northern European nation of Estonia, which implemented a national plan soon after its liberation from the USSR in 1990. As described by The Guardian, border-to-border internet has put a tiny nation far into the future of the digital lifestyle. Estonian citizens vote online, file nearly all tax returns online, educate nearly all their children in connected environments and receive all their medical prescriptions electronically.
Entrenched telecom incumbents want nothing of the sort to take hold in the US at a national or local level. Recently South Carolina buckled to corporate interest when it passed a telecom-lobbied bill that all but prevents municipalities from competing with private companies in the WiFi service space. Residents are the losers.
In states which have not hampered municipal solutions, town-specific WiFi and even neighborhood WiFi -- the hyperlocal blanket -- might offer an effective Band-Aid. After all, people live most of their lives locally and hyper-locally. For many, the practical meaning of "mobile" is outside the home, but close by. The list of local municipal networks is small, but pointing in the right direction.
How Far the Future?
Imagine this as a test of whether we have achieved true digital mobility. You walk out your front door in New York, grab your bike and pedal to Los Angeles. Your backpack holds a few clothes, a toothbrush, an ultralight laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. No power cords or commercial connection cards. If you can stop every half hour along the entire route and check into your digital life on any device, that'll be when you know the present has become the future.
In the meantime, battery researchers wrestle with physics, and hotspot evangelists wrestle with politics. I don't know who faces the steeper climb.
Brad Hill is the VP, Audience Development at AOL. He is the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.