There are no practical uses for the mobile web

by Michael(tm) Smith

Most of the people I know personally and see each day have a web browser on their mobile handsets ("mobile phones", if you prefer). However, I think most of them have never used the browser for anything, and maybe don't have any idea what they could use it for.

On the other hand, a few of the people I know use the mobile web quite a lot. Some of them even design mobile web sites, like the mobile version of Tokyo Art Beat. (Take a look at it in a mobile web browser. It rocks.) And some of them just use it for a lot of the same things they use their PC-based browser for; for example, reading syndicated feeds, and reading and sending e-mail (using Gmail Mobile).

I am not sure that most of the common uses of the mobile web could be considered "practical". But I did have a minor crisis last night that I solved by using the mobile web in a way that I think just about anybody would consider practical.

Confronted with a potentially serious problem

First a quick bit of background: I have only one "desktop" PC -- a IBM T42P Thinkpad. (Yeah, I know it7d be more precisely described as a laptop or notebook. But I mean "desktop" in the sense that I run a GUI desktop OS on it, in contrast to the server system I use for running my website and managing my personal mail.) I run Debian testing on that machine, and I routinely install the latest available versions of packages by running apt-get upgrade now and then.

Now, I don't always power the machine down when I carry it. But I did last night because I was planning to meet a friend for dinner before heading home. Anyway, when I finally did get home, I booted it up as I normally would, except that this time, it did something it normally doesn't do: It failed at a relatively early point during startup, and dumped me out to a shell prompt after emitting the following error messages:

Superblock last mount time is in the future

Damn. Not good. Not exactly a "heart-stopping crisis" kind of problem, because, well, at least it managed to boot to the point where it gave me a shell prompt. That said, ti was also not a problem that I suspected I could fix just by running fsck.

But I ran fsck on the drive anyway -- after booting from a rescue CD -- and then tried to reboot again from the disk.

...And got the exact same error message. As I had suspected, it wasn't something borked in the disk itself; it seemed like it had to be something that was going wrong during the actual boot sequence.

So, at that point, I take a moment to consider what would be the quickest and easiest way to find a solution to this problem. I thought, well, what I'd normally do is just fire up a web browser on my PC, cut and paste the error messages into Google, and see what I find. Only problem is, my only PC is sitting in front of me with the filesystem mounted read-only, having failed to complete the normal startup sequence it would need to go through to get to the point where I could expect to use it reliably.

Mobile web to the rescue

Then I remember my "other" personal computer. The one in my pocket. The one that gives me always-on Internet access, any time, any where. So I whip it out, start up one of the two web browsers installed on it, go to the Google site, type part of the error message above into the Google search form, and lo and behold, I get hits. Not a lot, but enough -- including the following one:

That's an archived copy of discussion that took place just last month on the debian-user mailing list, and I find that it describes the exact problem that I'm seeing -- along with describing the likely cause for the problem: a buggy version of the Debian package for e2fsprogs.

So I turn my attention back to my PC, cd to /var/cache/apt/archives, and check the archived versions of e2fsprogs. Sure enough, I find that I recently updated e2fsprogs from a package showing a timestamp from the middle of last month. So, I mount the filesystem read-write, run dpkg to downgrade to the previous version of the e2fsprogs package, cross my fingers, and reboot the machine.

...And I find God smiling down upon me once again. The machine completes its normal startup sequence without any failures, and I am back in the saddle again. Yee-hah!

Make use of that computer in your pocket

Most people describe their mobile handsets as "mobile phones". Me, I don't like phones much. I don't really like talking on a phone, I don't like having people expect that I will pick up or call back promptly when they call me on my mobile, and I especially don't like the goddamn annoying "Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!" ringing sounds that phones make.

I think of my mobile as a personal computer. A computer I can carry in my pocket. A computer that I can use easily with one hand tied behind my back. By thinking of it that way, I find all kinds of uses for it -- including as a tool for finding information quickly and sometimes for solving genuine problems such as the one I've described here.

If you start to think of your mobile handset as a personal computer instead of just as a phone, I think you also will find lots of practical uses for it.

Other examples of putting a mobile handset to practical use?