Will the mobile phone really eat the PC?

It's long been an article of faith for many mobile enthusiasts that mobile phones are going to become the dominant means by which the human race deals with the internet. Lately that idea has been echoed by more mainstream voices:

"There are over one billion people in emerging markets who will never access the Internet using a PC."
-- Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen, on stage at CTIA, September 2008

"Most new internet users will be in developing countries and will use mobile phones."
--The Economist, September 2008 (link)

"Mobile phones are the future of computing, and they are ideally suited for accessing Web services....(The mobile phone will be:)
-the device most likely to subsume the PC's computing and informational dominance
-the most functional and accessible device for conducting Web search
-the natural gateway to Web 2.0 platform applications and services"
--E-Week, October 2008 (link)


I have a lot of respect for those sources, but in their enthusiasm for mobile technology, I think they have made two big mistakes:

--They've assumed the internet is a thing, and
--They have forgotten about Moore's law.


The internet is not a thing

It's a collection of standards for data transport, storage, presentation and so on. People do an incredible range of tasks that take advantage of the internet, some of them well suited to a mobile phone and some of them not. Creating documents and graphics that you want to share online, browsing content, and writing online comments all are moderately to enormously easier when you're using a PC with a keyboard, mouse, and larger screen. They also benefit from having large amounts of local storage, which you don't have on a mobile phone.

The idea that people in the developing world won't want or need the benefits of a larger screen and keyboard is patronizing. It assumes that they'll be content to be second class citizens for many Internet services permanently.

If they can't afford a PC, of course they'll do what they can with a mobile phone. But that brings us to the second assumption -- who says they'll never be able to afford a PC?


Moore's Law lives


As I've written in the past, some people in Silicon Valley worry that we're starting to run up against physical limits on the growth of computing performance (link). Although that may or may not turn out to be an issue at the high end of the market, at the low end no such barrier exists.

I'm told by friends on the manufacturing side of things that the production cost of a fully-equipped ultra-mobile PC or netbook (what we used to call a mini-notebook) is now around $200. The street price for basic models is $282-299, a drop of about 17% in the last four months (see here, and here). Many of the key components in UMPCs, such as the screens and optical drives, are also used in DVD players, which means they're being manufactured in large volumes, driving rapid price erosion.

UMPCs aren't perfect -- the keyboards are very cramped, and the screens display text so small that they can be uncomfortable to read. But they are far, far better than a smartphone for many computing and internet tasks.

I am not saying that PCs will become affordable for the world's poorest people anytime soon. But let Moore's Law continue to chew on the UMPC, and I think a PC will soon be within the reach of a working-class family in much of the developing world.


The most likely outcome is that most people who can afford a mobile phone and service plan will also be able to afford a small PC if they want one. My guess is that they'll use both devices in the same way you and I do -- the phone will be better for some tasks, the PC for others. The idea of using one to take over for the other will seem silly, kind of like using a hair dryer to cook dinner.

Someday in the distant future, of course, we'll have smartphones with flexible screens and fold-out keyboards that can fulfill all of the functions of a PC. At that point, the line between your PC and your phone will blur, and you'll be able to say that your phone has taken over your PC (you'll also be able to say that your PC has taken over your phone). But after watching the lethargic pace of change in mobiles over the last ten years, I think we've still got a long wait for the merger of phone and PC. Besides, integrating more features generally raises prices, so the merger of phone and PC will happen first at the high end of the smartphone market. PCs will be dirt cheap long before they merge physically with phones.

24 comments:

wireless internet access said...

I'm skeptic about the thought. Mobile phones are truly rising above the market with its functionality and smart features, though It simply won't surpass the PC's capability of surfing the internet. Very intriguing topic that you come up with.

wireless internet access said...

I'd just like to correct the 2nd sentence on my comment above. It's "though It simply won't surpass the PC's capability of surfing the internet comfortably."
-sorry bout the mistake. Thanks!

Ajit Jaokar said...

totally agree! I was born in India and it makes me cringe when I hear this PC vs mobile arguement. It is not relevent. The Internet is not a thing as you say. and the PC will definately thrieve as will the mobile phone - but the idea that the phone will be used to access the Internet is flawed for the reasons you say .. rgds Aj

emma said...

Really very interesting and useful topic you've highlighted here. The demands of mobile phones are increasing day by day with their usefulness for several applications. But mobile phones are still not so handy for surfing net and downloading different files. But obviously they're developing along with new researches.

Giles said...

I think, when talking about the "Developing World" that it is very important to realise that this refers to the very poor. Here in South Africa and even more so in other southern African countries a very large percentage of the population live in shacks with no electricity or running water. Everybody, and I mean everybody (!), has, or aspires to have, a cell phone. A way can always be found to charge a cellphone's battery while power for a pc can be a problem. Most people won't even consider owning a pc for this reason, and because of the cost of purchasing a pc in the first place. And we won't even go into the difficulties of getting the pc connected to the web. A lot of people are twigging onto what a smartphone can do for them and, as they're going to have a phone in their pocket anyway, this is the final answer. The average man in the street does not, and never will, own both a phone and a pc. So you see... MOBILE WEB RULES!!!

Rob said...

As Giles says, there are many places where people will own a mobile phone long before they get a PC.

I'm guessing that in the order of tech purchases, a TV is probably going to come before a PC too.

Now build a cheap keyboard with a usb connector and a video out lead. Connect the usb lead to your mobile and the video out to the TV.

Now you have a phone acting like a PC in the sense that it has a largeish screen and a keyboard.

I'm guessing that you could build the keyboard/tv for $10-$20

Now of course this is never going to replace the PC. However I can see it as a realistic solution for a huge market segment who don't need any more power than the phone can easily provide, but who would benefit from a keyboard and screen.

Oizea said...

The major difference between mobile phone (mobile with interruptions) and PC (static with much resources) is their context in use.
Hence the different form factor and constrains.

The major issue is I/O: Input (keyboard, touch screen) and Output(screen, voice).

By no means this will blur in foreseeable future and who claims a phone as netbook is totally non-sense.

@Rob: you may be interested by my concept of Oizea Type. It can be an ultimately cheap solution for interacting with TV with remote control.

Varun said...

Isn't this basically semantics we're arguing over? Whether it's a PC masquerading as a mobile phone, or a mobile phone that's as powerful as and a replacement for a PC, doesn't it all amount to the same thing: a mobile device that's capable of interacting with the web in the same fashion as yesterday's deskbound beige boxes and today's lapbound beige notebooks?

Or as Old Will might've put it, "What's in a name? That which we call a mobile phone would still be able to browse the internet. So a PC would, were it not PC called, still retain that full internet experience".

Bob Russell said...

Don't forget that the PC won't stand still either, and they won't just be getting cheaper - they will evolve in what they can do. PCs will have entirely new capabilities that don't match up well with phone capabilities. And there will always (in the reasonable future) be a premium on small and low power that involves a tradeoff against performance.

For example, 3-d interfaces in PC with heavy graphical processing requirements. Maybe even using an entire desktop as the interactive screen display. I'm sure there will be other kinds of i/o devices and ways of interacting that can't be done (right away with phones). Also, heavy processing will be required for new types of apps. Maybe to deal with extreme bandwidth real time processing, or voice recognition or sight recognition, etc. Obviously I'm grabbing at straws because we don't know what's coming. All I'm saying is that future PCs won't look like what we see now. So advances in phones are not going to catch up with PCs for a long long time.

Andrew said...

Nice article, Mike. I wrote a slightly different take on this issue a few days back, coincidentally enough. Love to hear your thoughts.

Oizea said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments, folks. They're very interesting.


Giles wrote:

>>when talking about the "Developing World" that it is very important to realise that this refers to the very poor.

You raise a very good point. The term "developing world" is very vague, and means different things to different people. I was thinking of people who are well off enough to be able to afford not just a mobile phone, but a smartphone with data access, since that's what you need in order to browse.

Conditions are dramatically different in various parts of the "developing" world. As you point out, in many parts of South Africa it's hard even to get power for a PC, let alone a data connection. On the other hand, I was at a presentation recently by someone from Brazil, who talked a lot about the growth of wired broadband there. In countries where power and broadband are more available, PCs become much more practical.

Anyway, it's really hard to generalize for the "developing" world as a whole.


>>The average man in the street does not, and never will, own both a phone and a pc.

You've got to put a date on a broad prediction like that. In my experience, "never" doesn't exist in technology, except maybe for continuous speech recognition.


Rob wrote:

>>I'm guessing that in the order of tech purchases, a TV is probably going to come before a PC too.

Yup. Keeping in mind what I just said about differences between countries, the Economist recently ran an interesting chart on penetration of various goods among "non-poor" households in India. In descending order of popularity, the items were:

Wristwatch, bicycle, radio, color TV, landline telephone, refrigerator, mobile phone, car, credit card.

PCs were not on the list, unfortunately.


>>Now build a cheap keyboard with a usb connector and a video out lead. Connect the usb lead to your mobile and the video out to the TV.

But you'd need a mobile capable of outputting video signals. And a mouse. And a way to interface that to the phone. And a special power adapter so it won't drain its battery in 15 minutes when doing video out. And you need added storage for the phone, since you're now working with more data. And you need new software that can take advantage of the larger screen size on the TV.

I've been there and done that at Palm. By the time you've made all the changes, I think you could have bought a netbook. And it'd be better integrated.


>>I can see it as a realistic solution for a huge market segment who don't need any more power than the phone can easily provide, but who would benefit from a keyboard and screen.

That's the crux of the discussion. I think almost anyone can benefit from the capabilities of a PC -- if they have electrical power and a way to connect it to the Internet. If not, a phone will have to do -- but it's a second-class citizen for a lot of important stuff.


Varun wrote:

>>Isn't this basically semantics we're arguing over? Whether it's a PC masquerading as a mobile phone, or a mobile phone that's as powerful as and a replacement for a PC...

Ultimately -- but only when all the features of a PC will fit into a mobile phone's size and weight. It'll be a very long wait for that.


Andrew wrote:

>>Nice article, Mike. I wrote a slightly different take on this issue a few days back, coincidentally enough. Love to hear your thoughts.

It's nice to hear from you, and I like the article. When I was back at Palm, I used to say PCs are designed for creating information, while mobiles are designed for easy access to information while you're on the go. That's still pretty much the case today.

Anonymous said...

If you assume a persistant display limitation and thus the need for foldable display etc, you're likely correct with your doubts.

But what's about having a TFT + keyboard at home, and e.g. a high-resolution head-up display (powered by the phone) when travelling or for emerging countries if mains is unavailalbe? You'll do predominantely creative tasks when you've e.g. the keyboard connected, and consuming tasks if you've any HD display alone.

The Nokia Research guys elaborated this, and demonstrated that this works efficiently:
noBounds! project:
http://symbianwebblog.wordpress.com/2008/03/15/nobounds-expand-your-mobile-phones-display-to-a-hd-resolution/

This Video is quite intriguing. A remote GUI assembly with media decoding seems very feasible and a very realistic partitioning for mobile devices.


Processing power: The ARM Cortex based OMAP3 is much more efficient than an Intel Atom for the same application (e.g. HD Video recording & playback).
The lead is much bigger for web-browsing due to the >100 times idle power consumption relevant most of the time while browsing!
Whitepaper: http://focus.ti.com/pdfs/wtbu/ti_mid_whitepaper.pdf
Beagleboard: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXr-D1wROfQ
nVidea Tegra: http://www.nvidia.com/object/product_tegra_600_us.html

Appearently the exisiting and even more the coming mobile device platforms are more than powerful enough to handle PC like applications. Even fancy 3D interfaces are supported. What's next?

Michael Mace said...

Anonymous wrote:

>>But what's about having a TFT + keyboard at home, and e.g. a high-resolution head-up display (powered by the phone) when travelling or for emerging countries if mains is unavailalbe?

Thanks for the info. It's intriguing.

After thinking about it overnight, I believe I was way too dismissive of Rob's idea yesterday. Sorry about that, Rob. There's a very bad tendency among some of us who worked at Palm to be dismissive of new ideas in mobile because we tried similar things in the past and they didn't work. After all, if they didn't work for us it must be because the concepts themselves were impossible, not that we did a bad job of executing on them. Right?

So for both Rob's idea and yours, I think the right answer is, "go for it." But do keep in mind that whatever you do, it's got to be incredibly simple to set up, use, and maintain. Given the financial resources of somebody in the developing world, you should assume that they'll have zero tech support available. And they probably won't be as experienced at configuring tech as a typical smartphone buyer. It's got to work more like an appliance than like a computer -- just turn it on and it works.

Anonymous said...

while i would really like to see netbooks get very cheap; i have my doubts. they are already taking sales from dual core laptops. how will manufactures be able to sell them very cheap without seriously hurting the sales of higher end models. even intel will raise the price considerably on the atom if it becomes too popular and starts hurting core 2 duo sales.

i think we will need a new platform and new manufactures that sell only less expensive products before the netbook really takes off.

p.s. there will be no way to limit sales on cheaper laptops only to the third world. even here in america most people will drop there highend laptops in favor of a much cheaper option.

Tim Meyer said...

Like a Folio, another attempt at a companion is Redfly http://www.celiocorp.com/ even if limited to Windows Mobile. As CPU power in the phone increases this kind of application is no different than any thin client protocols such as Citrix.

Rob said...

Hi Mike,

glad you had another think about the tv/phone combo!

just thought I'd add some thoughts on how simple this could be.


>But you'd need a mobile capable of outputting video signals.

kinda, it would output a fairly low res (by computer standards) display signal via the usb cable. Folks already do this with much higher res. You'd do the conversion to video out in the keyboard.

>And a mouse. And a way to interface that to the phone.

yup, through the same usb cable. Not much work to do on the phone side to accept this; blackberry already accepts trackerball input, winmob probably has a mouse driver kicking around in there.

>And a special power adapter so it won't drain its battery in 15 minutes when doing video out.

the same usb cable will charge (as many do already)

>And you need added storage for the phone, since you're now working with more data.

I disagree with this statement. You can have a very useful pc-lite with the 1-4gig of memory you have in your micro-sd card. Most of your documents,email,etc can live in the cloud. Watch video on youtube rather than downloading the movie (though you can fit movies on sd cards easily too)

>And you need new software that can take advantage of the larger screen size on the TV.

yes you do. Though winmob is already ahead of the curve here; their os is pre-built to handle multiple resolutions.


I'm not saying this isn't a huge job. Someone has to set a couple of standards (like usb video out) and they have to rework their os to handle multiple resolutions and to accept input from an external mouse and keyboard.

But, once the OS work is done, the device could be very cheap(keyboard,mouse,usb hub and a video converter). I'd guess you could sell those for $20-30.

What's more, I don't think the build cost of the mobile phone would go up by anything noticable - all we have here is a couple of extra usb profiles that need software support.

Not easy - but certainly something that Microsoft could do as a way of controlling the tv/web/computer in the developing world...

The prize is "a computer in every television"

Anonymous said...

It feels like people here have missed the last couple of years of mobile technology!?

TV out is already in high-end phones and it doesn't kill the battery too badly (plus if you have a TV you have power and can plug the charger in). Ever hear of a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse? Currently available for <$50 when made in low volumes (not much demand). Could be very cheap if there was a significant demand!

An OS supporting multiple resolutions, TV Out, external input devices - have you heard of Symbian? Yes it's only at the mid-to-high-end now but it's currently going open source and royalty-free.

Storage space? 16GB+ cards already and NAND flash technology generally growing much faster than we can fill it with stuff.

Can only browse on a smartphone? Nokia's S40 mass-market platform has the Webkit browser.

I'd counter the criticism that "the internet is not a thing" by replacing the word "internet" with "digital content and services". If you think that mobile access hasn't already overtaken the PC in many markets you should probably read Tomi Ahonen.

I think the main point is that PCs have been over-powered for the software we can create to run on them (with a few exceptions, like 3D games and anything new by Microsoft) for years now and as things go portable and cheap it will be the hardware and software that's optimized for low power consumption that dominates.

Whatever sells the most will have the economies of scale to bring costs down and mobile phones have a massive advantage there.

Hardware and software have moved on a long way since Palm last did anything interesting. :)

Anonymous said...

P.S. To answer the original question in the title, despite what I said in the last comment, NO - the mobile phone will not eat the PC. There will always be a market at the top end for the most powerful hardware that needs to be plugged into the mains all the time. Just don't expect PCs to spread all over the "developing world".

Reda EK said...

"Anonymous said...

It feels like people here have missed the last couple of years of mobile technology!?"
Totally agree. It's a very interesting discussion but somehow the lack of reference to existing technologies (e.g. N95+keyboard) takes out some credibility to the post and comments.
Personally I think that in a world that is converging, netbook and mobile phones will soon be able to provide the same functionalities and therefore it will only be a different "price proposition". That is to say, in the same way you have Nokia 1111 and N99 (fictitious names) addressing different niches, a mobile, a mobile+computer package (i.e. peripherals) and a mobile + netbook will address different niches. Just my two cents

Michael Mace said...

Folks, thanks for all the comments; it's an interesting discussion. But I'd like everybody to keep in mind that it's a big and wickedly complex industry and it's possible for people to disagree because they have different opinions and experiences, not because one party or the other is out of touch. We'll learn more from each other if we focus on comparing notes rather than stereotyping each other.

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Michael

This is something I have extremely strong opinions about - and something on which I regularly cross swords with other commentators like Tomi Ahonen.

I regularly hear the myth perpetuated that "the next billion people will use the Internet on a mobile phone".

It is (largely) nonsense.

The first thing to be aware of is that often the definition of "Internet" varies - the mobilistas tend to include anything which uses a WAP or HTML browser, including closed-garden operator portals selling ringtones or a few news headlines. To my mind, that is no more the Internet than a bank ATM machine or a TV set-top box.

The second thing is that there's a huge difference between PC *ownership* and PC *use*. In developing markets, PCs are more likely to be family purchases rather than individual purchases. Or they are used in Internet cafes or schools. They are also likely to be used for entertainment, especially with full-sized video CDs obtainable cheaply (if illegally) in markets & street corners.

Many commentators appear not to have travelled extensively. I have - and I've seen places in Bolivia full of kids using MSN on PCs, or doing homework in Mozambique. It's telling that even the GSMAs "Mobile Planet" video features a shack full of PCs - connected by HSDPA modems, but PCs nonetheless.

Lastly, it's critical to consider the fact that phones are totally unsuitable for businesses and software development. Most governments want (a) PC-literate people to run companies using SAP and accounting software, and (b) A local software industry. For this reason, it is imperative for most countries to maintain a high level of PC penetration and competence.

Lastly - PCs are usually cheaper than smartphones, if you take longer lifespans into account. Most phones will start to fall apart after 18-24 months.

The only country with a lot of "phone-only" Internet users is Japan.

A year ago, I tried to quantify the mobile / PC / both user base. My analysis is here:

http://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/2008/01/mobile-vs-fixed-internet-users-2-its.html

Regards

Dean Bubley

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Dean.

I agree.

I like your point about usage vs. ownership. I hadn't thought about it that way.


>>PCs are usually cheaper than smartphones

Case in point: I recently saw an article estimating the price of the upcoming Nokia N97. The estimate was about 800, pre-subsidy.

And that's euros, not dollars.

Anonymous said...

I think a crucial issue is missing from this discussion. It's true the developing world already uses PCs for internet access, mostly in internet cafes. Also I agree that the form factor is the crucial difference between phones and PCs - storage and cpu power is almost irrelevant, or soon will be. Also, that phones could easily (and cheaply) be accessorized into PC-equivalents.
But I think the reason people use, and want to use PCs, is because of the software. The internet itself is designed for a PC mode of interaction. Is this really the best mode? I see in developing world internet cafes, people are mostly using IM, or facebook type apps, downloading music, or browsing porn. Excepting the last item, there may well be better, phone-centric, ways of interacting. Certainly theres plenty of opportunity in creatng phone-centric internet application.
Ultimately, phones and PCs (or augmented large-screen/'kb phones) will both co-exist, and be better suited to different applications, but I suspect many current applications that are best suited to PCs will be remodelled, and will ultimately turn out to be better suited to the phone.