Will the smartphone kill the PC?

The quotes coming out of London this week had me wondering: Is Symbian's management insane? Or are they just posturing?

Here's what they said:


"The personal computer as we know it will soon be dead, replaced by rapidly growing demand for smart mobile devices, according to the head of Symbian." --IT Pro

"Mobile phone access will be the next significant Internet phenomenon." --Symbian press release

"In five years' time you'll wonder why you need a PC at all." --John Forsyth, Symbian's Head of Market Propositions (a title that apparently means something very different in the UK than it would in the US)


They sound disturbingly like some of the most enthusiastic PDA enthusiasts did in 2000. I cringed then, and I cringe now. Here's why:

A PC, at its heart, is about information creation. The keyboard, mouse or trackpad, large screen, and large memory are all there because they're needed to manipulate words and images and numbers – spreadsheets, written documents, presentations, graphics, and databases. Despite all the hoopla about browsing and games and e-mail, creating and editing information is still the core use of the PC. That's why efforts to produce smaller or cheaper PCs with fewer features have all been failures -- take out the core productivity tools, and people won't buy the product.

Mobile devices are built around a different type of usage. They're all about information and communication access while you're on the go. They deliberately compromise information creation in order to get more mobility. So they're wonderful for voice communication, nice for simple texting, and adequate for short e-mail. But every effort to use them for heavy-duty information creation has been a miserable failure.

For a smartphones to replace PCs, they would have to take on all the features of a PC -- they'd need to input and edit text as easily as a PC, create spreadsheets as easily as a PC, edit pictures and presentations as easily as a PC, and manage large databases as easily as a PC. To do that in a small mobile device, you need a color folding screen (so you can work with large documents), either a full-size keyboard or perfect voice recognition, a pointing device a heck of a lot more sophisticated than a five-way rocker, enormous amounts of storage, and a fast processor.

Oh, and you need an operating system that doesn't break its installed base of apps every time it moves to a new version.

The color folding screen is in development, sort of, but many years away. Voice recognition is getting better on PCs, but it requires a ton of processing power and memory. I like the RIM Pearl trackball, so that might work out OK for the pointing device. But the processor requirement is a killer – a fast processor means lots of power, and battery capacity is simply not up to it today. Maybe it'll happen when we get fuel cells small enough for mobiles, sometime around the end of the decade.

I think when you add up all the uncertainties, it'll be another six years at least before you see a fully functional PC replacement as small as a mobile phone (in other words, it's beyond any realistic product planning horizon today). By that time, something the size of a PC will be even more powerful, and people may well trade up to that. But even if they don't, a mobile device with all that power and feature set could easily run Microsoft Windows itself, so why does Symbian think it's going to take over? More likely Microsoft will displace Symbian, since all the most popular productivity apps already run on Windows.

No, the realistic scenario is that PCs and smartphones (and other mobile devices to come) will prosper in parallel for years, each doing its own thing increasingly well. There will be some overlap at the edges, but the core usage of each product will remain very distinct. Meanwhile, the web apps platform will continue to gradually eat away at both operating systems, transforming them into commoditized plumbing that few people care about.

I'm not sure which OS will withstand web apps commoditization longer. Windows is more vulnerable to displacement by web apps because so many PCs have reliable high-speed web access. Symbian is somewhat protected because high-speed wireless is costly and eats even more battery power, and besides the operators are interfering with the deployment of web apps in the mobile space. On the other hand, Symbian has a lot fewer loyal applications developers than Windows, and in fact the lack of Symbian apps at the recent Symbian conference was noted by some observers. A smaller applications base means less resistance to commoditization, because there are fewer apps to replace.

Overall, if I were at either Symbian or Microsoft right now, I wouldn't be bragging too much about the inevitable forces of history. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, Symbian...

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the question is not what will replace the PC, but whether the use cases the PC enables actually matter. How many PC users are really creating content, and how many would be fine with something less sophisticated? Do people really need a personal computer?

Steve Litchfield said...

Great article, I mainly agree, the average PC user (even your average Joe Bloggs) isn't going to be able to do everything they want to do, even on the most kitted out N95....

I suspect that Symbian's hype was more to get people thinking along the right lines, i.e. these smartphones really can do more and more.

But yes, they did go a bit over-the-top with some of their claims, I'll admit that even as a hardened convergence geek 8-)

Steve

Bob Russell said...

I'd have to say I disagree with the conclusion, but agree with your discussion. In other words, what you have said about such a small form factor not replacing a PC seems self evident to me.

However, I can see a smartphone replacing PCs on a large scale in the sense that they will be like the tower part of a PC setup. You'll need a station with screen and keyboard and maybe some accessories. You might even have some processing power in that station so it can be used standalone. But I see the smartphone being carried around with your personal info and some of your basic apps, and being used via that terminal, which will become almost universal.

With a combination of web apps/storage and smartphone apps/storage, you should be able to have a really nice combination of computing methods, and I think both will remain important. Obviously there are advantages to web apps, and people will always (I think) prefer full control locally of their sensitive data and the core applications that should work whether or not a data connection or server is available. Besides, if the data is sensitive, they probably don't want to use and depend on web apps anyway. There's something that feels better about having full control of the data and apps you don't want to share.

The only reason I think this will be smartphones playing this role eventually instead of a separate "brick" (which might happen first, and might even be that mysterious Hawkins third line of business for Palm), is that everyone is accustomed to keeping a cell phone with them at all times, and that is a key ingredient to the success of this manner of computing.

The reason I don't think smartphones will take over PCs completely, is that supplemental power and storage is likely to always be needed. That might be in conjunction with the terminal I talked about or might be standalone computers, but I think size will for a long long time put additional constraints on price points and costs and computing power.

So there it is.... my wacky view of the future of computing. I understand that I may be quite alone with that view as I haven't seen it other than when I have written about it, but I think hopefully it's at least one perspective worth conisderation and discussion.

Another great article and topic, Mike!

Btw.... I love your bright and clear captcha! So many these days aren't human readable either. ;-)

Michael Mace said...

Excellent feedback. Thanks!


Anonymous wrote:

>>Do people really need a personal computer?

Good point.

To understand their future buying behavior, you have to ask an even deeper question -- what possibilities are they willing to give up?

In other words, even if they never actually create spreadsheets or presentations, are they willing to give up the capability of doing so? That has always been the killer drawback for PC replacement products -- people feel restricted when they give up a feature, even if they'll never use it. That's why every PC word processor is expected to do word wrap around irregular graphics, even though almost no one uses the feature.


Steve wrote:

>>I suspect that Symbian's hype was more to get people thinking along the right lines, i.e. these smartphones really can do more and more.

Could be. But when they exaggerate they hurt their own credibility.

In my more cynical moments, I suspect another agenda -- positioning for leadership relative to Nokia and the Linux crowd. By attacking the PC, they position themselves as a leader and get a ton of press. This makes them seem like the smartphone leaders when compared to Nokia (which actually pulls the strings behind Symbian) and the Linux community (the emerging competition).

The Visa credit card company did something similar in the US when it marketed against American Express -- the real target was MasterCard.


Bob wrote:

>>there are advantages to web apps, and people will always (I think) prefer full control locally of their sensitive data and the core applications that should work whether or not a data connection or server is available

I completely agree, but you shouldn't assume that the web apps architecture is going to stay the same as it is right now. The architecture is evolving to allow local storage and running while you're offline. Look at Adobe Apollo for an example of where things are going.

I agree that web apps today are totally unsuitable as a replacement for local apps. But if you look at the rate of innovation, and extrapolate out how the architecture is evolving, they'll get there faster than the smartphone will evolve to match a PC's features.

Analogy -- Symbian is swinging a sword at Windows, but somebody just fired bullets at both of them. Which will arrive first?

By the way, thanks for the compliment on the capcha, but the credit goes to Blogger.

Anonymous said...

I think these comments smack of the same attitude as people had to mobile phones in the first place. Lots of people said they would never need the things and they would never replace the landline.

The main point is why would you not want to access the internet using you mobile phone? Its there with you when you need it. Why not compose a letter/email whenever and wherever you feel like it? Why restict yourself to having to wait until you have access to a clunky PC? The majority of PC owners do not in reality enter a large amount of data, they browse the web for information, buy stuff, sell stuff, download stuff do email and very rarely write a letter. i.e. they could use their phones for without too much trouble even though data input is not as good as a PC.

The main problem lies with peoples attitudes to mobile devices both from the user point of view and the content providers. Its the old catch 22 they wont redesign their websites to work well with mobile devices because the demand is not there to justify the expenditure. People do not use mobile information enough because mobile webites are not designed well enough. People are also worried about the cost of using phones for accessing the internet.

It will take a while but I think its inevitable that the above situation will change. More and more people I meet use their phones (even if they are not smartphones as such) to browse the internet for information even though some of them are not fully aware that that is what they are doing. Mobile site content will improve as people use them more. The cost of using the internet via a mobile will come down over time.

I think Symbians comments about the death of the PC are well founded, altough it may take longer than 5 years (espeshally in the office) and Symbian may not be the dominant force. In fact I suspect the user will not even know or even less care what the OS of thir device is.

Antoine said...

Another great read Mike. I think this is one area where you and I are similar in thinking, yet maybe a bit different on the details.

One difference:
I see it being more then 5 years before smartphones become viable alternatives for the mainstream user unless location-based services along with low cost data can come together. I think the pieces are there, but the ideal and doability of it are beyond the minds of people. Take that Jobs comment about the Zune; people won't do it no matter how cool it is unless its easy. Easy could take 5 years, but I am guessing just a touch longer.

Another aspect:
Smartphones will be viable to more people who dont have a consistent big computer connection and can utilize the mobile aspects as a creation station. Of course this hinges on quality apps and services, as well as cost; but it is more than possible. Thru Mobile Ministry Magazine, a Treo we gave to a missionary has found a great use to him becasue of the ease of text messaging his wife in Africa, and then the ease of data entry. While it is that he sees the bigger uses, its the smaller well put together ones that leads him there.

Symbian's point was there, but more buzz than anything else. Give a docking station that would plug the phone into a full sized monitor and keyboard, they would be on point. To this day the folks that had that BlueDock idea missed the boat on changing computing. That would have easily given smarpthones the better than a PC edge.

LAstly, the comments made about web developers/designers needing to get on the ball with writing semantic/accessible/mobile-friendly code. Its coming, but at the same time, when managers get off the get a site up now mentality, then that time and effort to make a quailty site that works in both mobiles and standalones will not only work for all, but be worthwhile moreso for the inforamtional/communicational nature of mobiles.

Again, great article Mike. Peace and blessings.ciqqh

Anonymous said...

One comment regarding email: Already now younger people consider email outdated, and communicate mostly by texting. And while I enjoy web browsing with a big screen, I find myself using mostly Bloglines or other means of getting news in a condensed form.

Michael Mahemoff said...

See also "Mobile Phone As Home Computer" (Greeenspun, 2005).

Thing is, industry players needs to get its act together before they can make outlandish claims like this. Regardless of the form factor, smartphones have a major problem: the platforms are completely fragmented and developing to them is an obscure and tedious art. There are really only three PC platforms to target and you can easily hit all of them with a desktop app in Java/Python/etc or recompiled C++, as well as a web app. Even web apps are more difficult for smartphones due to the many different browsers available.

Alain Marsily said...

I always say that mobile/smartphone could be the "miniPC" for the "poor". There are mobiles everywhere including in third world countries. Why not just adding right video jack/connector to mobiles and with bluetooth connections, keyboard and mouse will complete such mobile to act as "miniPC". All basic functions and apps could be bundled to let people communicate and use basic/simple apps.

Douglass Turner said...

I find it odd that everyone falls for the bait of a question like this. This question is meaningless.

Not a single person (including Mike) mentions the mobile operator's house of pain that mobile handset are forced to operated in.

Look beyond the form factor issues.

Operators will NEVER allow the explosion of marvelous services we all enjoy in the PC-Internet world (everyone now go immediately to pandora.com and try and imagine such a sublime service in mobile land) to exist on Planet Mobile.

It is the lack of the possibility of services like pandora.com that permanently handicaps smartphones ever, ever, ever approaching the usefulness of a notebook computer or PC.

Cheers,
Doug

Anonymous said...

One reason mobile internet is having a difficult time is the price of connecting to the net, small available screens, and limited sites.
For the suggestion about converting a phone to a mini-PC. I'm not sure it's currently viable. (Not all phone companies in the world subsidize phone costs) The normal price of a smart phone is more expensive than a celeron laptop. Laptop prices are currently going down so it's cheaper in the long-run to get a laptop and use VOIP via wi-fi. or just get a low-end phone and a celeron laptop (Some laptops have slots for sim-cards, too)

Michael Mace said...

Cool comments!


Anonymous wrote:

>>The majority of PC owners do not in reality enter a large amount of data, they browse the web for information, buy stuff, sell stuff, download stuff do email and very rarely write a letter.

I think it varies a lot by user, but no question that lots of people don't use the full features of their PCs. But are they willing to give us the possibility of doing so? For decades companies have tried to create lower-cost PC replacements with a subset of the PC's features. They have universally failed (except for dedicated word processors in Japan, and I think those were typewriter replacements).

>>I suspect the user will not even know or even less care what the OS of thir device is.

I agree.


Antoine wrote:

>>Thru Mobile Ministry Magazine, a Treo we gave to a missionary has found a great use to him becasue of the ease of text messaging his wife in Africa, and then the ease of data entry.

I totally buy the scenario of the smartphone as a productivity tool for places where PCs don't exist.

That's not what Symbian predicted, though – they said we'd all be throwing out our PCs in a couple of years.


Anonymous wrote:

>>Already now younger people consider email outdated

Yup.


>>and communicate mostly by texting.

Depends on the region. In the US, it's a mix of texting and IM. They use texting when on the go and IM when at the PC. E-mail gets used, but it's reserved for formal communications – notes to parents, teachers, and other dweebs.

>>I find myself using mostly Bloglines or other means of getting news in a condensed form.

I think reading RSS feeds is a fantastic usage of a mobile device.


Michael Mahemoff wrote:

>>Even web apps are more difficult for smartphones due to the many different browsers available.

Ugh, I hadn't thought about that.


Alain wrote:

>>I always say that mobile/smartphone could be the "miniPC" for the "poor".

I like that idea. Makes a lot more sense than the smartphone replacing PCs among people who already have PCs.


Douglass wrote:

>>Not a single person (including Mike) mentions the mobile operator's house of pain that mobile handset are forced to operated in.

Well, I have mentioned it in a few dozen other posts. ;-)


>>Operators will NEVER allow the explosion of marvelous services we all enjoy in the PC-Internet world

Don't lost faith, Douglass. It'll be hard, but we will change this eventually. The operators can't hold back the ocean forever.


>>It is the lack of the possibility of services like pandora.com that permanently handicaps smartphones ever, ever, ever approaching the usefulness of a notebook computer or PC.

That's a really good point. The operators' behavior has to change in order for the smartphone to innovate as quickly as the PC + web apps.


Anonymous wrote:

>> The normal price of a smart phone is more expensive than a celeron laptop.

Good point; you can get a low-end Toshiba for $500 at Fry's. That's less than you'd pay for a serious smartphone with no subsidy.

cmonex said...

"Anonymous said...
I think these comments smack of the same attitude as people had to mobile phones in the first place. Lots of people said they would never need the things and they would never replace the landline."

well, no. i get a real (not kidding) headache when trying to do web browsing for more than 5 mins on anything like 320x240 or lower. it's just too small, and it is tiring to try to see the bigger pic (of a program or web site, or text, i read too fast for these, i guess). smartphones have to be small but that means they will never have a bigger screen and res.
and i use IM and such stuff (btw, text=sms is too expensive) too much to be able to type on a smartphone's numeric "keyboard" or even on an onscreen "keyboard". i get real real frustrated after 2 mins of typing, just too slow and hard to do. sorry but these things are not for me, very bad ergonomic. i'm sure many people agree here.

i would love the mini pc idea though, where you can just attach a larger monitor. the problem is as above, i wouldn't use it on the go, because these have very bad ergonomic for me.

all in all, we are human, we have a limited body and capabilities. i for one can't work on anything that gives me so much frustration and headache after just a few mins. these really limit the productivity inherently anyway, slow typing, slow reading, you lose time and time is money :)

that's the problem here IMO. :)

cmonex said...

btw, i forgot to mention some other important stuff.. :) don't get me wrong, i'm not saying i'm unable to work or use stuff, IM, etc., on the go... i just need something better than the typical smartphone. something, with a larger screen and keyboard, which still fits in a small place ;) yes there are such things already... yes still a compromise but a very tolerable one (much better than trying to take the whole pc or laptop along with you everywhere :D ).

Anonymous said...

One way to work around the display is maybe to develop special glasses where the display could be seen in.

I remember the libretto (really small laptop) didn't seem to take off too well during the 90's. My friend had one and touch-typing was too difficult because the keys were too small.

There was also a palm-sized computer being sold in Japan 2 years ago by Sony. The display was the size of a PDA with foldable keyboards and a few USBs at the back for other items. The problem was that it was a bit more expensive and it was only a Pentium 3 (vs. Pentium M regular laptops).

Antoine said...

The comments really range here. Whereas some are talking about software, others are talking about hardware, others abotu carriers, and still more trying to mesh the three. Its pretty clear that the fractured state of what is mobile computing will dog the mobile world until something flodds over.

IMO, carriers do hold the key here. If they open up, then development and evolution happens. If they look to be more like Dell and less like MaBell, then things could change as well. But the bigger slice of the pie is the carrier. The person whom MMM gave a Treo to has no problem using the tech, and even has become a bit of a spokesperson for it, but at the same time its the price of data and voice when going from country to country that has been a pain. That is something that has to change, and I believe will crest in time.

In terms of software/hardware integration. The idea of a docking ability for smaprthones (heck all phones) would make them all that much better for a slew of users. Not just becasue you could take your computer on the go, but then it also retakes that place the PDA was marketed in only 10-15 years ago to some degree.

Software needs to shore up and line up with not just latest tech, but usability and user needs. Yahoo Mobile is really close, but depends too much on the connection to the server. Hybrid apps (apps that reside client side for most use and then connect online for updating and increased functionality) would be something that should make developrs happy (given a common means to access the web that phones would use) and could also make carriers happy as they become service points and move from being access points.

Just some things I think about as reading this and other postings.

doonit said...

Will the smartphone kill the pc? IMHO, no...never. What's going to happen with time is that the two will become more and more integrated so that in the end what you'll have is your pc running at all times at home and your smartphone working as a remote control of sorts. Your pc's tower will eventually built into your fridge (cos the fridge never gets switched off) and somewhere in your home (your home office, maybe) you'll have a keyboard and pc-type monitor. Your smartphone then becomes the mobile user interface for controlling applications and viewing and manipulating data. Already applications like SoonR make it possible to view folders on your pc using mobile internet. It's slow and has a long way to go, but it works. The point is that neither smartphone or pc will take over from each other, but rather will become one. The possibilities then become endless.

Anonymous said...

Desktop Keyboard Is Dead, Smartphone To Replace PC

I have the interface Symbian needs for the Smartphone to replace the PC.

My new invention makes the desktop keyboard obsolete. It is hand operated by only one hand but faster than the desktop keyboard and small enough to fit on a cell phone. See my website. http://www.matthewarterouserinterface.com

Matthew Artero