2 min read

Big ideas for small screens

Ways to make it easier to use handheld devices

Handheld computers, personal digital assistants and smartphones are all very well, but they will never be substitutes for notebook computers with full-size screens and keyboards.I believed that a year ago. I’m not so sure now.

This isn’t because of the arrival of the Apple iPhone, although using a touch screen to let the display and keyboard share the same real estate is a good idea (as long as the touch screen works well).

No, pocket-sized devices are starting to look like promising substitutes for bigger computers because the technology to solve the small-screen problem is taking shape.

There are two approaches. One has been around a little while, the other is still on the drawing board but likely to be a reality in the next couple of years. Both are interesting, and they are more complementary than competitive.

The one that already exists is the high-definition display that mounts right in front of your eye, so it looks much bigger than it really is. With high enough resolution, you can cram a lot onto a tiny display.

There are already companies selling these things. Walking around with a little display device suspended in front of your eye may sound a bit geeky. Sort of like walking around with a little earphone in your ear used to sound a bit geeky. That one caught on, didn’t it?

One drawback of this type of device is it’s only good for one person at a time. What if you want several people to look at the display at once?

That’s where a newer technology comes in. Several companies, Nokia Inc. reportedly among them, are working on tiny projectors that can be incorporated in cellphones and Pocket PCs.

They will use micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) technology, which essentially incorporates building tiny mechanical parts into chips. The moving parts in this case will be tiny mirrors able to direct laser beams to paint an image on a flat surface. Point your cellphone at a whiteboard, a wall, even the back of someone’s white shirt, and you have an instant projection display.

Apart from new twists on stale old practical jokes – as in projecting “kick me” on somebody’s backside – these projectors will allow pocket-sized devices to be used for sharing information, such as PowerPoint presentations.

David Jacobson, director of technology at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, predicts they will bring the big-screen experience to tiny devices in about two years.

Projectors won’t be a one-size-fits-all answer any more than microdisplays will, because there’s an obvious privacy concern with using them on planes and trains, in coffee shops and so on. In a hotel room, though, projecting your display on a wall may be preferable to something you have to wear.

Of course, there’s still the small keyboard to worry about. Jacobson says the thumb-keying keypad, a la BlackBerry, is proving an effective answer to this. I agree, for e-mail and text messaging. I still wouldn’t want to be writing this column with one.

But entering large amounts of text isn’t what many people do on mobile devices. And anyone who won’t compromise a bit to be able to carry a smaller device around hasn’t tried trudging around all day with a 20-pound bag packed with laptop, spare battery, assorted cables and the accumulated detritus of a day of meetings.