It's a concept that has been hinted at for over a decade, but we may soon be approaching the time when smartphones and large-screen LCDs could team up to displace the current PC as we know it.
The idea is that the smartphone will become powerful enough to be a full-fledged computer and that wireless docking technology will enable you to set your phone down at a work area and immediately connect to a large-screen LCD, as well as a mouse, keyboard, printer, and other PC peripherals.
In that scenario, the smartphone simply replaces a desktop PC tower or a docked laptop. That's simple enough and certainly makes sense as smartphones become as powerful as last year's PCs (the first dual core smartphones running the Nvidia Tegra2 are expected by the end of the year). And, it's a clear replacement for a home PC since more and more people are likely to have a smartphone and an LCD panel that could double as a TV and as a computer monitor.
But, when it comes to the enterprise, companies aren't going to want to deploy smartphones to every user. First of all, there's the likelihood that a large number of these devices would walk out the door and never come back — no matter how cheap they get — and that would keep a lot of companies from handing them out.
What would make more sense is that companies have a work area with a screen, keyboard, and mouse connected to a $100 box the size of a cable modem and similar to many of today's thin clients. This box would serve two functions: 1.) connect to nearby mobile devices, and 2.) connect back to the data center to run a virtual desktop that has all of the company's apps and business data. To the user, it would look and feel very similar to today's computing environment.
The smartphone would of course hold the employee's personal files and apps, photos, etc. It would also hold the employee's personal preferences for their computing environment — icon and menu settings, bookmarks, wallpaper, etc. The IT department could set it up so that certain corporate data and apps would be allowed to be transferred to the employee's phone. What gets transferred and how much would depend heavily on the job role, the company, and the kinds of data and apps that the employee works with.
In this scenario, the user owns their own smartphone (and all cell phones will soon be smartphones). If the employee doesn't have a phone or doesn't want corporate data on their personal device then they can simply use the virtual desktop for all work activities.
As these smartphones get faster and more sophisticated they will also be able to contain within them a complete software image of a virtual desktop (running Windows, Mac, Linux, Chrome OS, or whatever), similar to what vendors like MokaFive are already offering. This will enable the smartphones to act like full-fledged PCs when connected to bigger screens and other peripherals — at work, at home, at the coffee shop, at conferences, wherever.
Once the smartphones have that capability, they will become the primary computing device for each individual.
The move to this scenario will be dependent on three factors:
- Powerful smartphones (multiple CPU cores and more RAM)
- Low cost LCD TV screens (under $200 for over 30 inches)
- Near-universal standardization of Near Field Communication, Bluetooth, and/or Wireless USB
The multi-core smartphones are already on their way. By the end of 2011, dual core CPUs will very likely be the standard in high-end smartphones, the following year we should see multiple cores, and within five years nearly all cell phones will be multi-core smartphones.
Many computer monitors now have multimedia input connectors such as HDMI and Component, just like TVs, while flat panel TVs almost all have VGA connectors to attach to computers. Pretty soon, the distinction between a computer monitor and LCD TV will become completely blurred. They will simply be screens that can connect to various types of computers, multimedia boxes, and mobile devices.
As for the wireless protocols, there is a rumor that Apple is already building NFC into the next iPhone to allow it to connect to a Mac and log in with the user's preferences and data. That could be an important first step toward the scenario we're talking about. Bluetooth, of course, is already serving as a standard for connecting mice, keyboards, and other PC peripherals and could remain part of this equation for that purpose. Meanwhile, Intel, Samsung, and others are pushing the adoption of Wireless USB, which has clear ambitions of offering exactly the kind of wireless docking capability that we're talking about in this article.
If this scenario were to become standard then it would have a number of major implications on the technology world, including:
- Reducing the importance, and likely the cost, of the desktop operating system (i.e. Windows, Mac, and Linux), but certainly not eliminating it (remember, it would still be needed for virtual desktop use)
- Selling desktop PC hardware would become a much smaller and more specialized business
- Laptops could take on form factors much similar to netbooks, ultra-portables, and the 11-inch MacBook Air and become infinitely cheaper (under $200) since they'd need very little power of their own and would mostly serve as a mobile screen and keyboard running off your primary computing device — the smartphone.
- Smartphones would likely grow at an even faster rate than currently predicted by industry analysts
This pair-up of smartphones and LCD TVs is a much more likely scenario for transforming the standard PC experience than seeing the masses give up their desktops and laptops for tablets like the iPad.
That's not to say that the iPad and tablets like it are not going to thrive in the years ahead. They definitely will. As I've said before, they will become the de facto device for people who spend their whole day in meetings (executives, project managers) and professionals who are on their feet out in the field (consultants, realtors, repair technicians).
But, that still leaves the standard knowledge workers who are chained to their desks most of the time when they need to get work done at maximum productivity. The smartphone + large LCD scenario would take advantage of the efficiencies developed in the current computing environment, but would give it greater flexibility and portability as well as a much larger virtual workspace using a big flat panel.
I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Bill Gates was talking about scenarios like this in the late 1990s. Various publications that focus on futurism and tech culture have espoused similar visions of what the future of computing could look like.
The big players in the computer industry are also very aware of the possibilities of this scenario and its potential implications. There's a reason why Apple is devoting most of its energy and resources to the mobile space. And, there's a reason why Microsoft has gone all-hands-on-deck to revive its mobile fortunes, if only to hedge its bets against a future where the PC as we currently know it is no longer sitting on a desk but is stored in a pocket or sitting inside a server.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about how technology is changing the way we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.