The Smartphone is Destined to Replace the PC

By  |  Monday, March 2, 2009 at 6:51 am

iPhone OS LaptopOnce upon a time, a garden-variety computer was the size of a room. Then minicomputers came along–the “mini” indicating that they took up no more space than a good-sized refrigerator. Next came personal computers–machines similar in size to the desktops of today. Then laptops–the hottest form of which are the pint-sized models known as netbooks. For decades, in other words, computers have reliably gotten tinier as technology and economics permitted.

What’s next? Surely not Ultra-Mobile PCs, the mini-Windows devices that almost nobody except Microsoft and hardware manufacturers ever got excited over. The next computer is the smartphone–ones like the iPhone, the BlackBerry, the T-Mobile G1, and many of the handsets that debuted a couple of weeks ago at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

On some level, this is an extremely uncontroversial statement. When I chat with folks about Technologizer and tell them that phones are one of our most important topics, I explain how my former employer PC World launched in 1983, when the PC was new–and I say that for this new era of smartphones-as-personal-computers, 2009 is 1983 all over again. Everybody gets that.

But when I say that smartphones are the new PCs, I don’t just mean that they’re PC-like–I mean that they’re going to become the primary form of PCs over the next few years. The time is going to come when even a netbook will look as retro as a PDP-8, and I don’t think it’s all that far off.

When I say that, I do get some raised eyebrows. People immediately contend that nobody’s going to want to do without a large screen, keyboard, and mouse or other pointing device in all situations. I agree. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t use all of those with a smartphone–or, in fact, why there couldn’t be displays and keyboards that sensed when your smartphone was present and connected to it automatically, instantly, wirelessly, and seamlessly. All the technology exists right now, and if I could buy a little box that let me use my iPhone with my 21-inch flat panel and comfy keyboard, I’d snap it up in a nanosecond.

(You might also want a bigger screen and keyboard for your iPhone even when you’re on the go; I could see “dumb clamshells” that are essentially laptops that use your phone as their brains catching on. Devices which are a bit like Palm’s infamous Foleo, which may have been before its time rather than an inherently bad idea.)

Which is not to say, of course, that my iPhone packs anywhere near as much computing muscle as a modern PC. It’s probably comparable in power to the computers I used in the late 1990s, but its processor, storage, and graphics are all relatively wimpy–they’re not even up to handling all the tasks I want my iPhone to do right now all that well, let alone replacing my laptop. But over time, Moore’s Law will take care of that. Within a few years, there will be iPhones as computationally potent as the MacBook Pro I’m writing this piece on.

And increasingly, much of a PC’s power won’t live inside the PC, no matter what its form. Already, I use Web-based applications like Gmail and Google Docs; already, some of my entertainment lives on remote servers thanks to services such as Lala. That trend will only continue, and it’ll mean that for most of us, having the fastest CPU or the biggest hard disk just won’t be as important as it once was.

(In fact, if I wanted to be really forward-looking, I’d be arguing in this piece that it’s the Internet that will replace the PC, plain and simple. But until someone figures out how to wire the Web directly to our brains, we’ll need at least a little local hardware…and a smartphone should do the trick.)

McCracken’s First Law of Tech Predictions famously states that it’s easy to make accurate predictions–as long as you don’t try to guess when what you’re predicting will happen. (If you do, you’re likely to be way off–far too early, or far too late.) I’m confident that the time will come when “PC” means a phone-like device you carry in your pocket, but I’m way too cautious to pin a date on that eventuality.

But how’s this? Come 2014, I’ll be startled if the world isn’t full of folks who use smartphones to do the things we do today with laptops…and if those people don’t think of their phones as computers, period. If I turn out to be wrong, remind me and I’ll eat my hat. (Boston Red Sox cap size 8, lightly salted.)

[This post first appeared in T-Week, Technologizer's free weekly e-mail newsletter. You can subscribe to it here.]

 
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9 Comments For This Post

  1. tchestna Says:

    would love to see this in a K-12 setting. students would come in to a class lab and hook up their devices to perform class work while using them to take notes in lecture style classes. they all have cell phones anyway at this point…even the elementary level students. schools would be better served by working on services and infrastructure as opposed to maintaining students computers.

  2. JonathanPDX Says:

    This is all great, Harry, but I’m STILL waiting for a cell phone that makes a decent call and a plan with all the goodies included where I don’t feel I’ve been raped and pillaged every month when I get the bill.

  3. BonusVideoPoker Says:

    Can I play shooter games on it????

  4. Jim Says:

    I can’t wait until Adobe Creative Suite is available for the smartphones that replace the PC I am using. Oh, wait, that won’t happen, and we will still have PCs.

    And considering how most smartphones don’t have a full-size keyboard, I really doubt the PC should be relegated so quickly to the garbage heaps. You look at power and fail to realize there is user interface that needs to be looked at.

    Maybe a smartphone dock would resolve this need for real-sized KBs, mice and screens, but I can’t see people spending that kind of money on office workers, especially the vast majority that do not travel.

    By the way, did you ever predict we would all be tele-commuting before the end of the 20th century as well?

  5. william Says:

    Along the lines of JonathanPDX, the technology might not be the big issue. The big issue might be people who do not want to be forced to use their cell phone company’s plans and pricing for their computer/internet experience.

  6. mathiastck Says:

    Moore’s law has not applied so well to mobile because the power requirements have not been reduced at nearly that rate.

    I love the idea of using my blackberry curve, G1 or even IPhone has the input device for my PC, TV or mediacenter. (I want a trackball and a keyboard.). I’d love to see bluetooth become ubiquitous on PC’s.

    Similarly I’d like to use the same A2DP Bluetooth headset for my phone, ipod touch, media center and PC, being able to easily switch which Audio channel I’m listening too. (Ideally I’d like to be able to listen to multiple bluetooth audio channels at once, and just adjust their volume according to which is more interesting at the moment.).

    So, for a lot of users, I see the smartphone just being an important part of a larger web of gadgets.

    For some, especially many Japanese, the smartphone is their primary computing device. So to some extent your prediction has come true.

    The PC was basically the only device capable of doing the many tasks it did. That era is gone, now those tasks are increasingly being taken by our phone, our data storage device, and our high end game console. Or better yet, the task is shared. Some emails we deal with completely on our phone, some we read the subject only and put of dealing with the mail more thoroughly until we get to a PC.

  7. alan harris Says:

    What do you suppose will replace the smartphone!? The issue is the rate of successive technological obsolescence. I suppose a scientist or other expert has deduced a mathematical formula for this. Assuming, therefore, that technological advancement occurs with growing rapidity over time,then are there barriers to innovation, such that investment in the next stage would be hindered by the inherent or perceived risk that investors/risktakers would/may be deterred from investing for concern that they may not sufficiently recover their investment plus profit?

    One method to discern this would be to go back to when the pc was in its infancy commercially and determine the dynamics of the industry and rate and cost of succeeding replacements in the marketplace. Presumably, due to inherent economic laws, the curve must be rising more steeply in each succeeding “shorter” runs. My own theory is merely complementary to this, namely: “All systems eventually integrate and consolidate over time.” The primary issue being: how long in time does it(succession) eventually/actually take !? {Q: Does “succession” necessarily imply “success?)

    My favorite illustration of this concerns the U.S. military organization. I served in the Army as an non-career ROTC officer.However, I couldn’t understand why we had separate armed forces (i.e., performing duplicative missions with different equipment). Thus the Marines and Army had separate ground and air forces. Although the Marines had jets and helicopters, while the Army had fixed wing and helicopters. The Navy has air forces and ships. So does the Coastguard, to a much lesser extent. I always thought that the Coastguard should be folded into and absorbed by the Navy and the various missions carried out within that structure. Similarily, the Army and Marine ground forces should be integrated [in Vietnam, e.g., the Army & Marines conducted joint ops together on many occasions in I. Corps!] The Air Force would absorb all of the other branches flight operations and equipment, with duplication eventually eliminated. Well, to shorten the analysis, I understand that the DOD finally came to this conclusion and, eventually, there’ll be only one ground, air and naval force. “Dat’s” ’cause all systems integrate and consolidate over time! No use “fighten-it.” But stupidity reigns by either ignoring or procrastinating about it. Forget the various prides and prejudices between the services!

    In closing, one other area badly needs to heed this immutable rule: GOVERNMENT at all levels. In Minnesota, for example,where I reside, we literally have scores of different governments: parks,mosquito control districts, watersheds; cities, towns;counties, metro governmental jurisdictions (with both supervisory and direct powers). We have 90-some counties in this smaller-sized state. Counties are running out of money trying to duplicate systems of separate judicial jurisdictions. And even cities still have their own separate judicial systems! Where are the supposed expert system analysts pointing out and demanding implementation of these immutable scientific principles!? ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT: you better believe IT! It’s just a matter of time!!

    Thanks for giving me unlimited space to ventilate!!

    Sincerely,

    Alan D. Harris
    E.P., MN 55344

  8. randy Says:

    The smart phone cannot possibly replace the computer. I think most of us are missing the point. The smart phone is merely the latest evolution of the PC. The only battles to be fought at this point is who will provide the connectivity and who will provide the code. People have been taking shots at MS for years because they are the gorilla. It's the thing to do. Obviously, if MS doesn't make some quick in-roads, Android may well be the OS of choice for the new PC, that thing we now call a smartphone.

  9. Chris Says:

    Although I would like to see you eat your hat i will have to agree.

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