Harry McCracken thinks that in short order Smartphones are going to become the dominant form of PCs:

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 was a freshman in college, I was told by not one but two professors that five years hence all applications would be run on the Internet and that local computers would be little more than terminals. It’s been ten years. These days, I hear that within five years all applications would be run on the Internet and that local computers would be little more than terminals. The terminology and likely execution has changed, though, so the predictions remain bold!

I mention internet apps because that’s a part of McCracken’s calculation. He expects that the smartphone computers will thrive because of Cloud Computing, which is the latest way that applications are going to all start being run remotely. As it was going to be ten years ago, it will be any day now.

If you haven’t already picked up on my skepticism of McCracken’s claim, let me say outright that I am skeptical. Very skeptical. What I hate about positions like this is that they are lazy. They are not forward-looking at all. McCracken throws out a few ideas as to how this is going to happen and then nods as if he has proven his case. He hasn’t. He overlooks some rather crucial elements insofar as how people actually use their machines. He doesn’t address the most obvious counterpart: Desktop PCs can do a lot of things out there better and cheaper than any alternative.

The question that McCracken should have asked himself is: Why do desktops still exist today? After all, we have laptops now. Laptops can already do exactly the same things that he’s claiming that smartphones will be able to do tomorrow and have been able to for quite some time. The “clam” he refers to is little more than a laptop docking station, which fell out of disuse a long time ago. Most people don’t need their laptops to be desktops. They have desktops for that. Instead of one replacing the other, they mostly coexist. Further, rather than coming closer together, they’re moving farther apart. The netbooks are the laptop market moving away from replacing desktops and towards laptops that are meant for more specified tasks.

It is extremely difficult for me to imagine that smartphones will succeed where laptops failed. Particularly when laptops were already remarkably closer to desktops in form and functions than smartphones will ever be. Laptops can have the same processing power as PCs. Their screens are in the same ballpark if not exactly comparable. Everything about the smartphone that points to it as being a successor to the desktop, the laptop was closer.

Smartphones are getting faster every day, but they’re still slow. Smartphones are rife with proprietary technology in ways that PCs (and even laptops) are not. Smartphones, by virtue of their need to be compact, have specialized parts for just about every model. They lack flexibility. They lack memory and hard drive space. Oh, and of course they lack processing power. And however fast tiny processors on tiny smartphones advance, it won’t be as fast as PC chips. McCracken is convinced that this will become less an issue because of web-based applications.

Now where have I heard that before?

Actually, I appreciate him bringing it up because I really do think that it’s the same faulty thinking at work here. Web-based applications sound great until you ignore the advantages of having your own software installed just the way you like it on your own computer. It doesn’t make sense to do a lot of these things over the internet. Sure, internet connections will get faster over time… but processors won’t? They’ll never catch up. They’ll never be necessary because it’ll be as easy to just use the laptop that you have the software installed on than it will be to log on to some software site to use the software that you’ve purchased.

Whenever you voice your objections and concerns about having all of your software installed and processing on some network server, you just get a blank look and an assurance of that’s how it’s going to be. Because it makes sense. Tell them why it doesn’t make sense for you and they will tell you why you’re the exception and technical geeks and article-writers like them who find it spiffy-cool are the norm. Linux geeks have less hubris.

What McCracken is saying about smartphones could actually happen. It could. Maybe web-apps will finally take off like we’ve been promised for so long. I certainly use GMail in a way that has made email software redundant. But any prediction that takes web-apps as a given is on some pretty shaky ground.

Whatever the case, I do expect smartphones to get smarter until we start thinking of them as a separate computer. I have long predicted the sorts of things that he’s talking about where you will be able to hook your smartphone into a console sort of thing and be able to do a lot more with it than a PC. Most likely, though, I think what we’ll see is that we plug in our phone to a PC and the PC acts as a conduit wherein you can edit files and use software in an emulation environment taking advantage of the superior hardware of the PC for your smartphone.

Right now, though, my PC doesn’t even like trading files with the smartphone.

We’re some ways off.

Category: Server Room

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5 Responses to The March of Progress Needs Rationale

  1. Linus says:

    I completely agree with you – smartphones are spiffy, and their capabilities will likely increase dramatically in the coming years, but McCracken is flat-out wrong that this is going to lead to widespread changes, especially “in the next few years”.

    One fundamental limitation you didn’t mention is user interface. Oh, things keep getting better (see iPhone’s multi-touch), but these devices are still going to be limited by having screens small enough to fit in a pocket and either a stylus (which can be a little cumbersome and is easy to lose) or a touch interface (which takes up lots of screen real estate if it’s to work with the thick-fingered public). There’s a reason we still use the keyboard and mouse – they’re effective in a wide variety of situations.

  2. trumwill says:


    I didn’t bring up that point because McCracken addressed it. It’s his position that we will be able to conveniently hook up a monitor/keyboard/mouse/etc to the device.

    We’re not that far off from that, actually, but what you’re still left is a slow processor on a device with limited memory, hard drive space, and multimedia support. It’s possible that some people would prefer that for the ease of being able to carry their computer around with them. I’ve had ideas along those lines myself. But it seems to me that it would be in combination with, not replacement of, a standard PC. And if you’re going to hold on to the standard PC, it might make more sense and be simpler to let me simply plug by device into a PC and have it share resources, acting like a hard drive and emulated platform so that you can run the smartphone apps on the computer, access files, and so on.

  3. Linus says:

    Knew I should have read the article…

    Another issue is operating systems and compatibility. At least as of now, mobile devices need to use ARM-type processors if they’re going to 1) have a small enough battery to remain pocketable and 2) have enough juice for an 8-hour day. Hence PDAs and smartphones, which need applications specifically developed for them. Then there’s ultra-mobile PCs, which can have access to vast collection of programs written for Windows, but they lack the UI. Intel’s Atom and it’s upcoming chipsets to pair with it may bridge this gap somewhat, but you’re still stuck with a UI/platform problem. In order to be effective as a smartphone, someone’s got to define some basic parameters like screen size so that everyone developing for the touch/stylus UI can make it work. To perform all the functions of a modern-day laptop, hooking up a keyboard, mouse, & bigger screen is well and good, but that would require a substantially different UI. The iPhone has one, PCs (Mac or Windows) have the other, but no one has merged them yet. And the combination of this with the hardware problems you mention make me think that widespread consumer adoption is still a decade off.

  4. trumwill says:

    You bring up a good point. If smartphones are our main computer and they’re running Windows Mobile, iPhone’s OS, or some other light ARM-based OS… that OS is going to have to become a whole lot better. It’s really like developing something from scratch. Something that can meet the needs of both Windows Mobile and Windows or iPhone and Mac.

  5. Linus says:

    For geeks, I think Intel’s Moorestown architecture (Anandtech references here and here) is the thing to watch for. It will make for pretty impressive devices – the size of today’s UMPCs with the processing power of a netbook (or better).

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