By Harry McCracken | Monday, March 2, 2009 at 6:51 am
Once upon a time, a garden-variety computer was the size of a room. Then minicomputers came along–the “mini” indicating that they took up no more space than a good-sized refrigerator. Next came personal computers–machines similar in size to the desktops of today. Then laptops–the hottest form of which are the pint-sized models known as netbooks. For decades, in other words, computers have reliably gotten tinier as technology and economics permitted.
What’s next? Surely not Ultra-Mobile PCs, the mini-Windows devices that almost nobody except Microsoft and hardware manufacturers ever got excited over. 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 say that, I do get some raised eyebrows. People immediately contend that nobody’s going to want to do without a large screen, keyboard, and mouse or other pointing device in all situations. I agree. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t use all of those with a smartphone–or, in fact, why there couldn’t be displays and keyboards that sensed when your smartphone was present and connected to it automatically, instantly, wirelessly, and seamlessly. All the technology exists right now, and if I could buy a little box that let me use my iPhone with my 21-inch flat panel and comfy keyboard, I’d snap it up in a nanosecond.
(You might also want a bigger screen and keyboard for your iPhone even when you’re on the go; I could see “dumb clamshells” that are essentially laptops that use your phone as their brains catching on. Devices which are a bit like Palm’s infamous Foleo, which may have been before its time rather than an inherently bad idea.)
Which is not to say, of course, that my iPhone packs anywhere near as much computing muscle as a modern PC. It’s probably comparable in power to the computers I used in the late 1990s, but its processor, storage, and graphics are all relatively wimpy–they’re not even up to handling all the tasks I want my iPhone to do right now all that well, let alone replacing my laptop. But over time, Moore’s Law will take care of that. Within a few years, there will be iPhones as computationally potent as the MacBook Pro I’m writing this piece on.
And increasingly, much of a PC’s power won’t live inside the PC, no matter what its form. Already, I use Web-based applications like Gmail and Google Docs; already, some of my entertainment lives on remote servers thanks to services such as Lala. That trend will only continue, and it’ll mean that for most of us, having the fastest CPU or the biggest hard disk just won’t be as important as it once was.
(In fact, if I wanted to be really forward-looking, I’d be arguing in this piece that it’s the Internet that will replace the PC, plain and simple. But until someone figures out how to wire the Web directly to our brains, we’ll need at least a little local hardware…and a smartphone should do the trick.)
McCracken’s First Law of Tech Predictions famously states that it’s easy to make accurate predictions–as long as you don’t try to guess when what you’re predicting will happen. (If you do, you’re likely to be way off–far too early, or far too late.) I’m confident that the time will come when “PC” means a phone-like device you carry in your pocket, but I’m way too cautious to pin a date on that eventuality.
But how’s this? Come 2014, I’ll be startled if the world isn’t full of folks who use smartphones to do the things we do today with laptops…and if those people don’t think of their phones as computers, period. If I turn out to be wrong, remind me and I’ll eat my hat. (Boston Red Sox cap size 8, lightly salted.)
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