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Design of the Portable Device of our Dreams

On the 100th anniversary of the Ultimate Digit Portable Multifunction Device we bring you the initial draft of the gadget as taken from the archives at the Digit Library on Trantor.

Encyclopedia Digit > Year 3245 PA > The Ultimate Digit Portable Multifunction Device“… when it was discovered that Digit’s strict policy about “not spending 98% of your day fantasizing about cool devices” had been violated, the management decided to put the same to use. Thus the Ultimate Digit Portable Multifunction Device (UDPMD) was born.

After little deliberation the design was put to a test and became an instant success. Now having replaced almost every other portable device ever created...”

In the 21st century, the world has finally begun to shrink into our very pockets. Every aspect of our lives has now started to become available on the go. We have cellular phones to stay in touch with people, via voice and text, we have portable media players to keep us entertained, we have eBook readers to fit our entire library into our pockets and we even have pocket PCs! The list is growing; the list is endless.

Amidst all this, a philosophical question begs asking: how many pockets can one have?

How many pockets?

Sometimes it seems that devices come intentionally crippled so that we need to buy more. Whether it be in form or function, some constraint or another forces us to go for another device, when one ought to have done the job.

This is why the UDPMD does everything. Or more precisely, can be made to do everything.

The reason computers have seeped into every field is because they are almost infinitely configurable. Whether it is playing your favorite games, or landing the rover on Mars, the device in question always ends up being a computer. If you take into account every possible hardware accessory coupled with every software possible, computers can do virtually everything.

The UDPMD embraces the fact that every portable device is a computer, and opts to be fully expandable through hardware and software. It runs on open hardware, meaning that the core design of the system is not only known and published, but also unrestricted. It is however also standardized, so that modifications need to comply in order to be compatible.

Open hardware means that one has enough information to create any additions, modifications, and extensions for it, and doesn’t need to pay anyone for the privilege. This steps above merely having an SDK to make applications for the device, as now you can write your own operating systems instead of relying on the one provided by the vendor. Open hardware also means that every manufacturer can manufacture it, without requiring a license, ensuring that customers can benefit best from the competition

This may lead you to wonder, how exactly will open standards help?

Why so open?

Having grown up surrounded by the mantra of the three Rs (Reduce Reuse Recycle), it seems odd that precious few devices are built around that concept: “Why can’t I reuse my Sony mobile headphones with my new Nokia mobile? Despite the fact that almost all these phones now use Lithium Ion cells, why can’t I put a Motorola battery in a Samsung phone? Or even use the same charger?”

Even in their most forgiving of moods we are treated like little kids by manufacturers; no options offered, with the assumption that we are too dumb to know what we would want if given freedom and choice.

Open standards means that anyone is free to implement them. Which means that every manufacturer which makes a charger, or a battery, or even a screen will have to comply with the same standard. Right now it is possible to get only unbranded third-party replacement parts, with fuzzy warranties and little or no reliability. With open standards even some of the smaller companies can start making components and parts for a mobile device.

The UDPMD is completely open, so anyone and everyone can make modules for it. The word standard is as important, because without standardization every manufacturer would start manufacturing their own custom versions and we’ll end up in the same place we are now. With the UDPMD you can go to just any mobile store and buy a charger of any company and be sure that it’ll work, you can buy any headphone or any battery. The true competition then would be about who makes a better component, not which device do we have to compromise the least with.

With a device as modular and open as the UDPMD, customization becomes easy and you no longer have to adapt to the device, but the device will adapt to you!

What’s that module?

All portable devices have some sort of micro-controller which will perform most of the processing involved. A micro-controller is essentially a small computer on a single chip, yet all this potential goes to waste as you are locked down to the features of the gadget you bought and the interface it comes with.

Any portable media player today should be able to play Matroska (a lesser known audio / video file format) files, the processor is capable, just not programmed to allow for it since it does not have a large enough user base. This is understandable, yet with an open system, the open source (or otherwise) developer can pick up the slack and add the functionality themselves.

This is true for hardware as well. When you buy a mobile, for example, you often pick the model in which you have to make the least compromises. Why should we need to make compromises? If the iPhone has an amazing touch screen, but you like Android OS, and love the cameras that Nokia mobiles have, you will have to pick based on what you are most willing to forgo.

This is especially cruel of the manufacturers since mostly, the incompatibility is created by them. If the technology exists, why shouldn’t you have the best of all? Due to artificial restrictions we are unable to optimally use our favorite devices to the best they are capable of.

The UDPMD will suffer from no such birth defects. With open hardware specifications that allow for modules, we can have easily have a device which uses the best from each field. Each component is separately installable and upgradeable. You can remove that old 2MP camera and place in a brand new 5MP one without needing to chuck away the whole device.

You can mix and match your own configuration, much as you can do today with assembled computers. Take the basic processing module, throw in a camera module, add a simple GPS module, and some kind of storage, install software that is capable of utilizing them, and voila! You have your own digital camera. Add a GSM module and you have your own mobile camera phone with GPS! You can even install a hub to extend the number of modules you can use at a time. What’s more you can add an additional GSM module to allow the same device to use two connections.

The possibilities are now endless. You can go for the best manufacturer for each component without compromising on the other. Or, since money is always the final hurdle, you need only compromise with that which is least essential. Or if you can’t be bothered with all this and prefer the they-give-I-take system you can buy ready made configured devices, and if someday you want to upgrade that lousy 40MB internal memory with a 160GB HDD, that path is always open to you! Oh and did we mention open standards? That means you can reuse the same modules for your next mobile.

Recycling: Mother Earth Approved

Many devices have a microphone for recording, or a speaker for playing sounds, and a screen for displaying visuals. Why can’t we reduce the number of repeated modules by reusing the common features, thus recycling the resources? With the UDPMD everything is a module, so you can go ahead and use that amazing expensive camera module you bought while making a digicam, with your new and awesome phone, it won’t mind. And because we think of everything, we also included the facility to make module-packs, so you can have multiple “packs” of your own configurations for different purposes. On the way? Add the PMP modules-pack and listen to your music. On a vacation? Use the digicam module. Lost? Use the GPM locater module-pack.

Some modules will even allow multiple devices to use the same components. So you can go ahead and buy that expensive bendable multi-touchscreen and use it for your camera, mobile and PMP at the same time. The advantages are obvious: you no longer need to spend money on the same thing over and over again, instead you can spend money buying a better product.

Now all our three Rs are satisfied too! We are reducing the quantity of the parts consumed since they can be reused across different gadgets and recycled for use in new gadgets.

One may ponder, with this cocktail of components, who do I go to when it all blows up?

Nokia Morph

If you were thinking that we went over the top with the UDPMD, take a look at the Nokia Morph concept. They envision a device created from materials which can morph into different shapes depending on what purpose they are being used for at the moment. This beautiful device can fold itself for better pocket-ability, and unfurl into a landscape view so you can read your documents better. The surface is nanostructured, and it can be made self-cleaning, self-preserving and solar-powered! Plays right into our UDPMD plan doesn’t it?

Nokia EcoSensor concept

How about some sensible electronics for a change? This concept phone tries to respect “The Three Rs” by making the mobiles out of recycled and bio-materials. Oh and did we say it also monitors your health, the environment and weather while reducing energy consumption by utilizing alternative energy sources such as solar power? This concept device consists of a wearable sensor which can be solar powered, and a mobile. The two work in unison. The sensor is capable of detecting hazardous environments, and weather conditions, and can monitor the wearer’s health conditions. The mobile itself is designed to minimize material usage, while using bio-materials and recycled materials. Nokia intends to set things in motion in this direction, and has even conceptualized web services built around the data collected from such devices.

Nokia seems to have a lot of concept ideas of their own, and also a big fan following who design what they feel are concept phones that Nokia should release. This E97 concept was designed by Fabien Nauroy, a French design student. Wouldn’t we all love an E97?

Where does the buck stop?

With so many different manufacturers involved in bringing you the final product of you dreams, who is to blame when something goes wrong? You might suspect that that unbranded camera module probably caused the phone to melt down but it could easily have been that expensive overpowered battery.

It was as much a headache for the manufacturers to diagnose the cause of the error, wasting resources if it turns out they were never at fault anyway! Quite similar to the problem we have with assembles PCs today. Every component needs to be shipped or taken to a different location for repair / replacement, and under different warranty terms. Too many cooks spoil the broth they say.

Will it be that much worse off than today?, when customer service pompously explains why you are at fault for your devices predicament, with the authority of knowledge that they don’t have and an interest that they don’t share.

With branded models there will still be a single warranty provider, it is the customized models you will need to worry about. In all likelihood the people customizing their phone heavily will be well adept to handle themselves, they’re the big boys who are doing it even right now even though daddy said no.

Being the materialistic creatures we are, what wall matter more probably is: what will it look like?

Cause looks matter

You may be a little worried right now that this might turn out looking a lot like one of the instruments SETI uses to search for life in space. Worry not, since we imagined the whole thing anyway, you bet we’d make it look as sexy as possible. Although it would be infinitely cool to carry around a chunky collection of circuit boards connected together with glue and tape, for many people this will be a deal-breaker.

In the UDPMD, the modularity extends to the exterior as well, so the outer looks of the device themselves are nearly free-form. Although people would want their cameras to look like, well cameras, and have their mobiles look mobile-y, there is no restriction as far as the standards are concerned. The exterior just needs to be designed to house the core of the device and the modules.

Since the exterior is just another module it can even be interfaced with the device, making things even more interesting. With research in smart materials which can change their shape and form fluidly, the possibilities are endless. Here you could see companies emerge that cater solely to the visual needs. You’ll see more wacky designs and risky interfaces. Pure nerd joy.

This technology is a road-map, not a destination; for any technology to be viable for a long time, it needs to be able to evolve.


The world has a way of cruelly discarding anything it deems unworthy. Things which are more adaptable and open to change are the ones that survive the test of time. Evolution is a process which is especially unforgiving of technology. It’s not over until the fat pig flies.

The UDPMD is the very epitome of adaptability and change. It is fully capable of integrating with the latest of technologies thanks to its modular design, and adopting them thanks to its open nature. Like the typewriters and calculators evolved into computers, as telegraph and telephones evolved into cellular phones, and as radios and gramophone records evolved into the Media players of today; so will the natural attrition of portable devices of today yield the UDPMD of tomorrow.