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In 1999, Star Wars was in theaters, Space Invaders was in arcades, and our team was crisscrossing Europe and Asia, testing mock-ups of what would one day become tablet computers. The main attraction of our prototypes?They were a new category on the power-mobility continuum. They occupied the vast white space that existed between computers and phones.

White Space?

This term from the print world of 1850 refers to the space on a white page of paper that is not occupied by graphics or texts or photos. This blankness provides visual breathing room for the human eye, keeps a page from being crowded, and avoids cognitive overload. Over time, it came to mean those open spaces between existing products and services that could be served by a new category of product or service.

At one end of the 1999 power-portability continuum was function.

Computers had all the power and performed all the tasks important to us, but were too big to hold up to our ears. 

At the other end was portability.

Phones were comfortably small to carry around, but not powerful enough to perform online activities, nor were their screens big enough for viewing much at all. We learned what people really wanted was to be able to do big things on small devices.

Yes, yes, everyone knows this now, but they didn’t twenty years ago, did they?

Take a moment and get in the Wayback Machine with Mr Peabody, Sherman. What was your level of tech sophistication in 1999?

In 1999, telecom researchers were professional tech hipsters.

We were the 1% who had the latest and greatest of everything technological. Our amazingly lightweight IBM ThinkPads weighed 5 pounds. Our category-inventing BlackBerrys (sic) allowed us to communicate wirelessly around the world. As cocky as gunfighters, we swaggered around with phones, pagers, and email devices on our low-slung belts, instantly in touch with Sweden and Korea and Brazil, sometimes all at once. Today we buy laptops and tablets weighing less than a pound and our smartphones are lighter than a hockey puck, a hamster, or a deck of cards.

Innovators and early adopters almost always mistake the latest and greatest status symbol for the ne plus ultra of mobile telecom devices.

It does not occur to most starry-eyed consumers standing in long lines to pay big bucks for the moment’s must-have too-hot, trending gadgets that every one of today’s shiny new things will be ridiculously old-fashioned before you know it. 

Back in 1979, we were already the professional tech hipsters, too.

What was the tech world like then?

  • In 1979, The Sony Walkman was invented. For the first time ever, we could listen to our own playlists wherever and whenever we want. As long as it was on a cassette tape.
  • In 1979, The first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, was introduced. It allowed us to do in one hour what until then took 40 hours of cranking an adding machine.
  • In 1979, ultrafast microprocessors raced along at 3 MHz. No one imagined then we would be watching live events and reading every book, watching every movie, and listening to any song on a magical device we could hold in our hands.

The compromise of performance capability and easy portability has been solved. 

And now we have a new continuum: screen size. Seven inches is a huge screen on a smartphone, yet we buy 100 inch screens to watch at home and we go to theaters to watch screens that are 100 feet wide. Why? Because portability, which imposes limits on physical size, does not trump an immersive video experience.

So here comes the next step, although it certainly won’t be the last.

Scientists have invented foldable glass (wow!), so we can carry around a device whose screen opens to twice its size. Screens that unfold to ten and twenty times their size can’t be far behind. No matter the size, though, the things we watch on televisions and in movie theaters are in only two dimensions (not counting the red and green cardboard glasses). When I say this, tech users interrupt with protestations about their virtual reality goggles, not realizing how in twenty years they will look as foolish as the gizmo on Doc Brown’s head. How long before the huge leap to no physical screen at all, but a true 3-D holographic image in space? We won’t just think we are in the middle of the show, we will actually be in the middle of the show. How’s that for immersion?

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