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BW Businessworld

Screaming Screens

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This morning I woke up from a strange dream in a total state of startle. Somehow, in a medley of confused thoughts and images, I was trying to forward the dream with the backlit button on my Samsung Galaxy.

Coming to my senses, I realised my phone, right next to my pillow, was SMS-notifying me and it was only some annoying marketer telling me to rush and buy an apartment. I'm all in favour of sending these guys off to Gaddafi's torture cells for a bit of R&R.

Immediately around me right now, I have two laptops, my phone, the television, my iPod and an iPad. If someone were to give me a Kindle, I won't kick and scream in protest. I have a couple of screens in the other room, but let's not go there.

Incredibly, I find spaces for all of these. Do I ever get mixed up? Frequently. There are times when I have hung up the phone on someone when I really meant to close a window on the laptop. And I have cut some text on my phone and stared in bafflement at my laptop screen when Word would not paste that text. But whether I'm muddled or 100 per cent there, I am never very far from a screen. If I go to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea, I take my phone along and get through many technology articles on BuzzBox. Indeed, I love reading on the phone for some reason.

And nor am I alone in this screen-filled existence. On a recent holiday to Goa, my family and I got back home after a day of romping around the beaches, churches and fabulous eating joints in the city. Pleasantly tired out, we all settled down quietly in the living room. One noticeable thing: everyone had a screen in front of them, from PSP to iPad, to phones, laptops and television. We'd had enough quality time together over the day and now it was time to tune out the world and switch on the worlds we carry around with us. There is plenty to read, watch, play, create, write, learn…

Forget the multitude of screens in public places; those populating our personal space are not going to decrease anytime soon. Not with the marvellous hardware pouring in from everywhere. Smartphones and tablets, we know, have only just begun. In homes, individual members have phones, laptops or desktops, and gaming devices. I even know families in which each person has her own Kindle. The same will soon be true of tablets. Some of those, such as from Sony, Kno and Fujitsu, even have two screens. So do some laptops such as those from Acer, Lenovo, Asus and others. There are actually some three-screen notebooks too. Televisions, of course, can have screens within screens, allowing you to multi-watch. Then, to top it all, HP has been busy trying to give the PC a new lease of life with interesting touchscreens that lie back and angle for a different user experience. Cars, fridges and other household appliances are also beginning to wear screens. No, we can't escape them. It's getting so complex that Ericsson has come up with a screen to control all the other screens. This is apparently being tested now in 7,000 households.

Then there are all those apps and software fuelling the screens. Never before has there been so much to do on devices around us, from playing the piano to rediscovering the fine art of reading, working on the go, to relaxing in the company of Angry Birds.

Realising the increased presence of multiple screens in our lives, content developers and providers are doing their best to create stuff that fits at least three screens — the television, the computer and the smartphone. In 2009, Microsoft's Ray Ozzie and Steve Balmer used the metaphor "three screens and a cloud" to define the framework that would exist for the foreseeable future — television, mobile and computers and the Internet. This is really coming into its own now as we see that at least three screens seem to have become indispensable. Microsoft sees big opportunities in this collective space and plans to address it with software re-engineering to deliver more to customers. Other companies such as Apple are also connecting these three worlds so that what you do on one screen relates to the other screens. The race is on among several companies, in fact.

We are so involved in technology, gazing at one screen or another, that scientists, probably delighted to have something else to investigate, try to prove our brains are getting totally rewired by technology. It may well be rewiring relationships too. All that divided attention, interruption of one thought with another, new information that calls out to you from everywhere causing you to lose track of what you were doing; it's got to be doing something to our heads.
Not that I'd give up any of my screens. I'm just saying.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, @malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-03-2011)