Smartphones

Utopian convergence of PC and mobile: How far away is it?

Connected professionals are carrying too many devices. But, make no mistake, convergence is coming and it will have seismic effects for both users and the tech industry.

Let's face it, today's hyper-connected professionals have too many technology tools that do too many redundant things. And, while that redundancy can be a good thing when one of the devices doesn't work or runs out of power, it also means that our devices are destined to consolidate because normal people eventually get tired of having too many specialized tools. Most would would prefer a Swiss Army Knife.

In the gadget world, we've already seen this happening with point-and-shoot cameras, GPS navigators, and MP3 players. Most of them have been wiped out as individual devices and simply absorbed into smartphones -- the Swiss Army Knife of modern tech.

However, there's also a new redundancy, perhaps the biggest redundancy. As smartphones get faster and more powerful while the technology that runs today's computers gets smaller and more power-efficient, the two are destined for a collision course. Plus, now we have tablets thrown into the mix.

I know way too many people who now carry a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone (sometimes two). In fact, I'm one of them. However, I predict that five years from now, this won't be the case. Most people will carry one device. The question, of course, is which device will it be?

Judging by the current trajectory of these technologies, it will be something akin to what a smartphone or tablet looks like today, although with a big asterisk.

I realize this may sound strange since just last week I wrote the article "Tablets are for people who hate computers" in which I talked about the fact that people who are already highly-proficient with computers tend to end up frustrated with tablets.

But, what I'm talking about now is a future device that looks like today's smartphone or tablet but has all of the power of today's personal computer. A preliminary example is the Motorola Atrix, which is a high-powered smartphone that can also slide into a desktop dock or a laptop dock and function like a full PC with a keyboard, mouse, and large LCD monitor. The big difference is that the smartphones of 2013 and 2014 are going to be powerful enough to run a full desktop OS that can do virtually everything today's computers can do, including photo editing and high definition video conferencing. The other big difference is that future smartphones won't have to physically dock. They'll use an encrypted wireless docking technology that will function similar to Wireless USB and the Palm Touchstone charger.

When those factors come together, the smartphone will become the computer. It will not only be your communications device, but, with a combination of the cloud and local syncing, it will also hold the key to accessing all of your apps, data, and media no matter whether you're operating on the phone itself, or from a wireless docking station with keyboard/mouse/monitor at your office, or wirelessly tethered to your flatscreen TV at home.

The same will be true of tablets. They will be capable of docking and becoming a fully functional PCs. We're already seeing glimpses of this today with the HP TouchPad and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer. The future scenario for tablets will be nearly identical to what I mentioned above for smartphones. The big question will be whether you want a smartphone or a tablet. People who make more phone calls and tend to be more mobile and active will likely opt for smartphones. People who do more visual tasks will likely to gravitate toward tablets.

One thing to note is that for all of the people who choose smartphones, there will still be a market for a low-cost color e-reader (under $100) similar to today's Amazon Kindle. I think we'll see a lot more people using those as companion devices to smartphones than opting for both a tablet and a smartphone.

And, yes, there will still be exceptions. Video editing, multimedia production, CAD, and software development, for example, will all still be done on full desktop computers. But, these will increasingly become highly specialized systems, almost like today's workgroup servers.

There's also one other interesting factor to watch in this whole process. A lot of the current tech titans are likely going to fight this trend because they won't want to cannibalize any of their current revenue streams. They'd prefer to sell you a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop. That's what Apple wants with iOS and Mac. That what Samsung wants with Android and Windows. Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUS want to replicate what Samsung is doing. HP wants to do the same thing, but with WebOS all around. None of them are going to be motivated to deliver a converged device instead of selling you three devices. That's going to leave the door open for someone unexpected to seize the opportunity.

Next week, I'll tell you who it might be.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

77 comments
Darren B - KC
Darren B - KC

The things this article describes are a far cry from any sort of PC utopia I ever have, or ever will, envision. I have NO desire whatsoever to see my PC and my mobile device become combined in any manner beyond the USB cable I use to transfer a few pictures and the occasional video. Not once have I ever been somewhere away from home and thought, "Golly gosh, I sure wish my HTC phone could run 3DS Max... I could get some 3D modeling work done while I'm waiting to get my hair cut." Why do people who report on tech stuff seem to think that we're heading for some inevitable combining of hardware platforms, as if it's something that simply MUST be done? It doesn't. WTF is wrong with keeping PC's and mobile devices separate? It doesn't even make sense to me because there's absolutely NOTHING on my mobile device that I want on my PC and vice versa. I don't even share calendars and contacts between them!! Sheesh.

Akilestar
Akilestar

I can't believe no one mentioned this. This may fall into the category of specialized but there is no mobile solution for this. Even the best laptops still do not give me the options I need for the best gaming experience

disasterboy.info
disasterboy.info

I am surprised that most of the techies here seem to have missed Jason's trajectory. The logical system and the physical interface are separate layers of the computing architecture. A single Operating system that is inter-operable accross scalable hardware can make the user experience much more convenient. If the difference between 'docking your smartphone off your desktop' or 'running your desktop off your smartphone' is semantically the same its easier just to do things. An operating system that can integrate accross multiple processors on multiple devices and view the data and storage devices logically as well as using a single operating environment for a user is very convenient. The only operating system with the flexibility in the near future to adapt as a single user environment accross mutiple scalable devices, I suspect, is linux. Getting the protocols and multiple interfaces working in a streamlined way is quite a software challenge. Security, Identity and Resource allocation accross a cloud server user profile, home media devices, profile on a friend's desktop computer, playpad thingy from a fruity company, smartphone and 'exercise entertainment bonodoggle' is real challenge. Its a reasonable utopian expectation... For redundancy one would expect there would be multiple ways to verify identity, cross-platform synchronisation and every separate hardware unit could operate separately/offline. Just that proximity (physical or internet) will provide transparent seamless (I know its hated marketing ohrase which I mean in a technically real way) use, is a real simplification of people's lives.

Janet G at Intel
Janet G at Intel

Regardless of what device someone at Intel ends up using, Intel IT is working on what we call the compute continuum, which we define as seamless, consistent experiences across devices. We are using a combination of technologies and trends???such as ubiquitous internet connectivity, virtualization, and cloud computing???and working towards redefining the way we provide services to meet changing user requirements. Check out our latest paper here: http://intel.ly/mUr11C

AudeKhatru
AudeKhatru

I tend to agree though I think it won't come quite as quick as you think, because of the big money trying to hold it back, but first or maybe the answer to this convergence is a true tablet. Right now we have two tablets, the big-screen smartphone, and the UMPC (UMPC is/was a Windows tablet before anyone used the word). Neither of these will be that convergent device, or the final iteration of the tablet. The true tablet will be something truly in between. It will be more capable than a big-screen smartphone, and not just because of a different OS, but it will be less than a UMPC. The other question to answer is if you choose a tablet, what do you use for a phone? Will we go back to Bluetooth headsets connected to your 3G tablet? I'm not sure. I'll be waiting to hear the rest of this article.

brian
brian

1) I see no future in the cloud for ordinairy folk. 2) I want to control, manage and secure my data. 3 ) I do not want anyone else in that loop as I control access. Now one thing that I do not see mentioned in this debate is how do I access Excel. I use Excel every day, rain or shine. Mobile and fixed to my desk. I used to use PDAs for mobile Excel and dock with my Desktop and or Laptop as the need arises, I keep these synchronised as far as practical. Following the death of my last PDA( my fourth!) I am unable to use Excel on the hoof. Ok I could buy a Windows Mobile, albeit I have just purchased a Nokia Symbian phone with my femtocell ( bad move, I know now!). Cell or Mobile phones have been problematic for me here, and world wide, I have to work too hard to make them work. I have just succeeded in making my latest Cell work inside my home - it needed a femtocell to get an adequate signal! - I know have a fairly stable G3 connectiion- before the femtocell there was no connectivity and I have tried many Mobile providers over the years. Yes I know that living in a rural environment is not good for communications but I believe that we have to press these providers into providing a decent service, after all we pay enough for it!. Returnong to the multiplicity of dervice debate. I see no clear winner here. I would be happy with a cell or Mobile phone that could handle Excel and other programs - I see no need yet for 50 plus extra Apps on any device, let alone loaded on 3 or 4. These seem frivolous to me, I do not use facebook ( I was an early adopter but soon saw the perils and stopped using it) I have never used twitter etc and cannot see the sense in "Following" celebrities etc I have too much else to do! This device would have to be connectable to my Main DeskTop or Laptop - and if it was a Laptop I would need a server to communicate with CAD peripherals, Maths tools, Astronomy tools, specialist printers, eBook reader access, Music access Scanners etc, Photo galleries and Libaries generally I do not see any room in my life for a tablet, or need for one,My daughter currently usea a tablet for recipes and other household needs where the Apps do come in handy!.proffesionally she uses a couple of laptops. I agree with ross that the user's biggest needs are a good HMI (keyboard and mouse) although I would want a tablet as well. I have broadly given up keying in messages with thumbs and only send messages when it is important and I can find no other way of communicating.

swohlers
swohlers

I like the kitchen oven comment the best - the key point is that when you combine functions that are performed better or more efficiently separately - you make compromises or lose something. I still prefer an old Western Electric phone on a hard telephone line, simply because I get tired of dropped calls, batteries on the headset or phone running down, poor reception, etc. - not to mention it still works during power outages. As technical people, many of us tend to forget that there is still a large population that either cannot afford, are unable to access high speed internet or cell service due to rural locations, or just don't care about the internet that will always need simple, basic PCs with locally run apps.

ross
ross

For a user like me it's all about the keyboard and the monitor. Unhook me from my keyboard and chain me to a touchscreen and I will definitely pursue my other ambition of becoming a fur trapper north of the Arctic circle. So the idea of a dock is attractive, until I think of leaving it at home every time I travel and then being stuck with a tablet or a phone in a hotel room punching away with my thumbs. I mean am I the only one who feels thumbs were designed for nobler tasks than this stupid faux-keying we all are doing? Like hitchiking, or indicating hearty approval?

cbci
cbci

spastic left click finger...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Why won't tablets simply get flip-out keyboards? Or for that matter, why won't laptops become capable of folding in their keyboard for tablet-mode?

cbci
cbci

I believe it is currently, and into the foreseeable future, impossible for any mobile device, be it notebook, netbook, tablet, or phone, to have the power of a contemporaneous desktop. For now, gadget#1 is my phone (non-smart, no data plan) so that I am accessible via voice and sms. At home and office, I have powerful PCs which I lump together as gadget #2. And, in between I have a information butler which is currently an IPad2. Along with all the standard functions of a mobile device, I also have secure access to the power of my home and office PCs. The only thing I see changing in this scenario is moving from the Ipad2 to a Tab I am currently evaluating.

fletchoid
fletchoid

Now, the mouse and keyboard on your desk allow you to access the power of your desktop computer, and the monitor allows you to see the results. I see tablets replacing keyboards and mice as the interface with your "desktop" which may eventually become your "closet server". You just won't have to sit at a "desk" to use it. People still want to have their own independent computing power, with access to the cloud, but the massive storage of your own videos, photos, music, documents, etc will be in the box in the closet, and your tablet will allow you to access them. The cloud is a nice concept, but local storage will always be something people want.

PassingWind
PassingWind

The single personal device will really take off when the ultimate dock is developed - and that is well within today's technology, just waiting for someone to invent and patent it. It is a ubiquitous device, with screen, keyboard and mouse, print server, internet connection and optional local file server; the magic is a blue-tooth-like connection so that your smartie docks with it. Walk up to the ubi, either your own, a friend's or in an Internet cafe, give it your smartie password and hey presto - whatever the ubi screen resolution may be you are at your own desktop computer. Any data shared with other smarties or too big for your smartie is in the cloud. Any apps too big for the smartie are in the cloud or on the ubi. Oops - now I've invented it no-one can patent it. Never mind, it was obvious anyway. But now that I've messed up the patents, will it have to be an open source development? You there Mark?

Frenz9
Frenz9

I agree that the desktop PC will become more specialized. The average home user (Who is not particularly interested in computers) really only require web browsing, word processing and would probably love to remove the need for a full sized computer. Myself on the other hand, having a massive tech crush, will always love to have the latest gadgets & computers.

hcosma
hcosma

Jason, let me remind to your readers an article that supports your point. It is your colleague's report on the Padfone: http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-19736_7-20067515-251.html Also, as the folks at http://chromebookreviews.net/ point out, many non-geeks will start using the Chromebooks as an Internet appliance, because all they need from a computer are its web abilities. So yes, the desktop PC as we know it today will become a very specialized machine in a not so distant future.

kingkong88
kingkong88

"..a future device that looks like today???s smartphone or tablet but has all of the power of today???s personal computer" All the power? My notebook has a screen real estate of 1680 x 1950 pixels. Nothing mobile today or next week can replace that. It will need something that plugs into my brain or some projection device in front of my glasses. I still see two devices for the next 10 years. A truly mobile with you all the time, eg jogging. And a full blown one for the other occasions when you have an opportunity to sit down. And tablets are not in this equation, except as a fashion accessory.

itadmin
itadmin

Technically things can be made very small with a huge capability. However, we communicate with these devices using our fingers and get visual and/or audio feedback. There's a limit beyond which finger communication can't go. Everybody knows the hassles of a piddly little keyboard. Make a touch screen small enough and put enough on it and the problems are the same as with the tiny keyboard. Have a detailed image, like a technical drawing, display on a small little screen and things are not so good. The finger problem will one day be solved when we can talk to these things. Maybe the visual feedback problem will be solved by putting on some kind of 3D reality glasses and get huge images displayed to us. But those are some way off. Until then interaction with tiny things will be a problem.

clockmendergb
clockmendergb

We will all be using an overpriced smartphone on Monopolistic system paying overpriced rates to be limited on Bandwidth. The True North American Way. (Monopolistic in regards of 3 or 4 mega companies who do not really compete on price or services that all offer almost identical plans). It is not my first choice.

lpoehlitz
lpoehlitz

Great article. I believe at some point we will come to a single device and many wireless docks - dock for tablet, dock for laptop, perhaps a doc for e-ink, etc. It will be nice to have one brain/device and many form factors.

rm546
rm546

I'll have to disagree on this one. I think people use multiple devices by choice. I love my smart phone but i still prefer browsing the net on my PC (yes I still have one for photo and movie editing and it's easier on the eyes for browsing with the large monitor), but in a pinch I will use the smartphone to surf and I like that I can do it on my phone when the need arises. I also have a net book for editing documents and doing powerpoint presentations on the go; I have thought of doing a presentation from my smartphone but it is difficult to edit powerpoint for any last minute changes that I might need to do. Tablets are just too lacking in applications so I haven't taken to them yet. But I know people who love them as much as their smartphones and laptops and would not part with any of their gadgets. In the end keeping multiple devices is a choice we make and although convergence is a nice idea it isn't going to happen because the consumer prefers to keep his/her little toys.

Vandy-SJ
Vandy-SJ

It's tough predicting future technology, but I think Jason is probably right on this one. I don't think we know yet what device(s) will develope in the next few years, but I agree it will be mobile and smaller. If you could squeeze the functions and applications in my laptop into a smaller mobile device (smartphone?) and still give me docking to a full size screen and keyboard, that would be a great combination. Would it be a social-, business-, or education-oriented device - or would it suit all three? What communications media would it support: email, texting, video conference, online TV and media, and medical data and testing? And ultimately, will it meet the security demands of the day? Will the wireless broadband infrastructure support all that? What else do you see in your crystal ball, Jason?

mckinnej
mckinnej

To abuse an old cliche, one man's freedom is another man's chain. It would be interesting to see a valid poll (without a marketing spin) that measures people's actual needs and desires on this topic.

landomatic
landomatic

It is a bit bold, but the headline did grab your attention enough to post. Moreover, it was a question and provoked thought to consider which ways the industry(s) might be going. Others have different needs for their day to day computing. While you might enjoy the comfort of an on-demand umbilical connection between your little guy and the desktop/laptop, others, like me who consult for a living, would prefer syncronization via the "cloud" and my workstation to help avoid wasting time re-arranging contacts, re-reading emails, and manually syncing calendars, or even multi-media from my smartphone/tablet.

Janet G at Intel
Janet G at Intel

I do my best thinking at a keyboard - and I use 2, count 'em 2 glorious monitors! Give me a smaller device to use (tablet, phone, even pad & paper) and not only do my fingers not work properly, but my brain refuses to compose articulate messages. Besides, I have to be very careful about ergonomic issues and squinting at a tiny screen trying to type on tiny keys does NOT help work for me.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

You'll get the full-sized monitor, and physical mouse and keyboard, off my massive roll top desk when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers. The data (and OS and apps) may move into a box in the closet, but I want the large physical tools I've become accustomed to.

kingkong88
kingkong88

Why do people keep talking about a single device and in the same sentence add in a mothership dock? Those are two separate and distinct devices.

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

In stead of dramatically plugging devices into your brain, have you considered to just plug your screen into your mobile phone to get the same resolution? :-p

JJFitz
JJFitz

that driving with computer display glasses could cause. If texting while driving is a problem wait until virtualizing while driving. Maybe a transparent "on windshield" display with voice activation would be the answer.

rhonin
rhonin

A data plan for the phone A tether plan to plug phone into tablet A data plan for the tablet A tether plan....... ATT and Verizon Nirvana!

jfreedle2
jfreedle2

I think that something like this is good for portable devices, but a desktop computer can be more powerful and flexible in the most cost effective package. This will always be the case. People will choose the device that fits their usage pattern.

john.a.wills
john.a.wills

I have in my kitchen a range, with two ovens in it, a microwave oven, a toaster and a toaster oven. There is some overlap of function, but replacing all with one device does not seem an imminent or even a widely desired option.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

And yes, I think it is. intel.ly? No thanks.

fletchoid
fletchoid

I too will always have a mouse, keyboard, and large monitor sitting on my ergonomic gaming desk setup.... but I would also like to be able to sit in my living room and use my tablet to que up a video stored on my desktop, to watch on my TV, check my email while I am waiting for the previews to finish, and Google the cast of the movie because I recognize one of the actors and can't remember his name, or what other movies he was in. I can also take the tablet into the kitchen to make a snack, and continue to watch the movie being displayed on my TV. No need to stop the video when I take a pee.... just carry the tablet into the bathroom.... but turn off the camera of course.....

PassingWind
PassingWind

has an internet connection. Please let me give it another connection with useful functionality and still call it a single device, especially if it means I prefer it to the old device.

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

Those are indeed 2 different physical devices. But a docking station is not a 'smart' device, is doesn't do actual calculations of any kind. It just connects stuff. Otherwise you could call a usb cable a 'device', which is not exactly the case, I guess. What's the use of a docking station without something to dock? Nothing. So let's talk about a single device...

kingkong88
kingkong88

and not one device, as this article is suggesting.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Many of those would be left out of a mobile kitchen, say in gut truck or RV, in favor of a single oven. Sometimes portability requires settling for a device that does many tasks to a lower standard. Me, I don't see myself ever dropping a single-function camera.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but this one smelled more like PR than a personal observation.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but stand by our wanting different things from our technology.

fletchoid
fletchoid

Generation Schmeneration! I am 58 years old. At a recent family reunion a 70 year old friend of my aunt was enthusiastically talking to me about her 7" Samsung Galaxy Tablet, and all the cool things she could do with it, and my 27 year old daughter just looked at us and said she had no idea what the heck we were talking about. People use technology the way they want to. That's the great thing about freedom and choice.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm beginning to suspect it's a generational thing. I have no desire to read my personal e-mail more than once a day. I don't store entertainment media on my computer. I'm satisfied pausing something while I hit the kitchen or head; it will still be there when I get back. I'm not satisfied watching something on 7" screen that I could as easily be watching on 35" or larger. I believe American society has become less patient in my lifetime. No one finds the slightest delay in gratification to be acceptable anymore.

belli_bettens
belli_bettens

It will still be one device. Because the docking station is a passive device (read my other post further on). I don't read my mail on my keyboard or browse the web on my mouse (perhaps you do?), those are just I/O peripherals and are used to enhance the user experience for the actual 'device'. As a screen is also used for this purpose: some people have large screens, some smaller ones with lower resolutions but this doesn't mean your 'device' is less capable. You talk about a projection device in front of your glasses so either the 'projection' device' or your glasses will be a second device (in your own opinion). Better reread your own post before you comment on me :-p

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