Smartphones are taking over the world–the tech world, at least. The computing buzz these days is decidedly mobile. The question is “where does it end”? Do Smartphones continue their growth until they are the dominant or sole computing platform, or does this trend stop somewhere short of that? Let’s look as some of the factors that will drive the market:
The state of microprocessors used in Smartphones will go a long way in deciding the ultimate outcome of this discussion. We’ve seen similar scenarios to the Smartphone phenomenon before, and history tells us that microprocessors will keep progressing on all three major computing platforms. History also says that applications have always grown in size and capability to take advantage of the increased level of processing power and memory available at a given cost. In addition, desktop PCs (and laptops to a lesser degree) don’t have the extreme power constraints that a pure mobile platform like a Smartphone does. If historical trends hold true, it won’t bode well for Smartphones becoming the dominant computing platform, because PCs will continue to have an inherent advantage in software capability due to more powerful hardware. If there is a leveling off in PC processor capability, Smartphones will have more of a chance to overtake them as the primary computing platform.
Screen size and power consumption are also very important to this argument. Until holograms become standard, screen size will always be an important factor is choosing where to do your computing. This doesn’t bode well for a total Smartphone takeover of computing.
Keyboards are an analogous issue to screens; once voice input becomes standard in the computing world, keyboard size will seize to be an issue, tilting the field toward Smartphones. But until this happens, all but the insane will prefer typing on a PC keyboard over anything available in the Smartphone world (although there have been definite improvements in Smartphone keyboards).
Battery life is also a major driving factor in the capability of Smartphones. While mobile processors and memory will almost certainly continue to provide greater compute capability at lower power consumption, desktops essentially have no power constraints (except for the very green-conscious). Even laptops come with an assumption of working at least part of the time where they can be plugged in. There could come a day where batteries are so powerful and hardware is so miserly in power consumption that battery life is no longer a major issue. Until that day, however, the checkmark goes to PCs.
There are two aspects of software that are important to this discussion. The first is the number and breadth of applications available–the Smartphone category has already blown through this checkpoint. Hundreds of thousands of applications are already available on Smartphone platforms. Smartphones are already in the mainstream from a software assortment perspective. The second question is the sophistication/capability of the infrastructure software available, to ensure whether bleeding edge technology can be used on a platform. While Smartphone infrastructure and tools aren’t t yet as powerful and mature as what’s available on PCs, things are moving fast and I don’t see this as a major issue preventing Smartphone dominance.
New Hybrid Smartphone/Laptops
This embryonic platform holds the promise of being a game-changer in the market, tilting the advantage towards Smartphones as your primary (and possibly only) computer. What I’m referring to is a normal Smartphone “docked” into a laptop accessory shell, providing a larger screen, keyboard and maybe even bigger battery while using the same interface and software available on your Smartphone. This allows all of your files and computing occur on a single device, which would represent a major breakthrough for users. It’s the holy grail of computing. You may have seen ads for one of the early models, the Motorola Atrix “Lapdock”; or heard about the recently announced ASUS Padfone hybrid Smartphone/Tablet. It’s still very early in this segment and definitely uncertain how it will turn out. As in any early market, prices are still high, and the early devices don’t quite work as well as you’d like. But the paradigm is a powerful one. If the companies bringing out these devices stick with it, continue to innovate and introduce next generation devices that meet market expectations, this is a product that could truly be a PC killer. Only time will tell if this category will become the next generation of computing, or peter out like so many other great ideas that weren’t carried out to the required maturity.
I realize that tablets are becoming an important part of the computing ecosystem, but for simplicity I’ve considered them a next generation laptop in the context of this discussion.
I can’t say I know how this eventually works out. If I had that type of view into the future, I’d be in Vegas placing bets rather than writing this article. But using history as a guide, I think all three major platforms–desktops, laptops and Smartphones–will be with us for a long while.
I do think there will be a re-alignment in computing market share among the main platforms. I see desktops continuing a slow decline in share and eventually becoming specialist computers, used only where the ultimate in computing power is required. Smartphones have already staked their claim as the new growth platform. How far this growth goes is the only question. The wildcard is the new hybrid category. I believe that these devices could become the dominant primary computing platform if the hybrid Smartphone/laptop category takes off–which is far from a certainty at this time. If hybrids don’t take off, I believe screen, keyboard and processor limitations will prevent Smartphones from becoming the dominant computing platform anytime soon.
That’s my forecast–what’s your opinion on the direction computing will take? Do desktops eventually go away completely? Are they replaced by a Smartphone/laptop hybrid device? Do two of these three platforms survive, or will all three co-exist in the future as they do now? I’d be interested in your own forecast–leave a comment to further this discussion.