How Long Do You Give the Desktop?

By  |  Thursday, March 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

One of the big subjects of debate on the Interwebs this morning is a big, existential technological question: Are phones on the cusp of replacing PCs?

Don Dodge (presently of Google, formerly of Microsoft) thinks so:

The future of computing is that your cell phone will become your primary computer, communicator, camera, and entertainment device, all in one. The exciting new applications are running in the browser, with application code and data in the cloud, and the cell phone as a major platform.  I think in the near future there will be docking stations everywhere with a screen and a keyboard. You simply pull out your phone, plug it into the docking station, and instantly all your applications and data are available to you.

So does Google Europe sales chief John Herlihy, as quoted by a Silicon Republic story:

“In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant. In Japan, most research is done today on smart phones, not PCs,” Herlihy told a baffled audience, echoing comments by Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the recent GSM Association Mobile World Congress 2010 that everything the company will do going forward will be via a mobile lens, centring on the cloud, computing and connectivity.

BetaNews’s Joe Wilcox basically agrees with Herlihy:

Three years — most certainly five — is not an unrealistic time horizon at all. Even if it proves wrong, Google is acting like change will come rapidly. Last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt asserted the company would put mobile first — yes, before the PC. There is no Windows monopoly on mobile handsets to stop Google, Apple or any other would-be mobile competitor from rapidly advancing. Cloud services, whether delivered by applications or browsers, promise anytime and anywhere access to anything.

On Twitter, meanwhile, folks like Microsoft PR head Frank Shaw, Gizmodo editor Brian Lam, and analysts Michael Gartenberg and Ian Fogg chimed in:

@fxshaw

I am sure that Don wrote this post on his android phone.

 

@blam

just going to say, for non geeks, the phone is more accessible than the computer.

 

@gartenberg

The phone *is* important but it will not become MY primary computer, communicator, camera, and entertainment device. Nor yours either.

 

@ianfogg42

If primary = most time spent, then I think the iPhone is already my primary computer.

 

A few thoughts about this enormous topic, in no particular order:

  • Phones already are PCs–they just happen to be really small ones that don’t run exactly the same operating systems as their bigger brethren.
  • The vast majority of interesting applications are already highly mobile, networked creations. When was the last time that a brand-new piece of PC (or Mac) software was a huge deal? True, not all interesting apps are available in great smartphone versions yet. But they will be.
  • Old devices usually give way to new ones over time. But they usually don’t utterly vanish. And predictions about timetables are almost always wrong–they’re often either far too quick or far too slow.
  • A device can be both pervasive and–in terms of innovation and mindshare–kind of irrelevant. The FM radio is already there. Thinking of desktop PCs (ie, non-notebooks) as FM radios isn’t crazy.
  • I don’t see the need for large screens and full-sized QWERTY going away, ever. But there’s no reason why they must be connected to a dedicated, full-blown computing device in every situation. Like Don Dodge, I’ve long thought that we’ll end up with screens and keyboards that can talk to our phones. (I don’t think it’ll be done via docking stations, though–it’ll all be wireless so our phones can stay in our pockets.)
  • We don’t need to look into the future to see an era in which many people find phones as valuable in their own way as traditional PCs–it’s here today, and really got underway with the introduction of the BlackBerry more than a decade ago.
  • If virtually all of your data and much of your applications end up living on the cloud, the idea of a death match between PCs and phones starts to sound silly. You’ll use both–as well as great big screens like TVs–and they’ll all be portals to your real computer, which is…the Internet.

More thoughts later–I’d love to hear what you think. Here’s a silly little poll:

 
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17 Comments For This Post

  1. Camilo Bravo Says:

    Show me a professional video editor that can run on a phone, then I'll start thinking about this.

  2. David H Says:

    The desktop PC will be around for years to come. California is not like the rest of the country. Technology may seem ubiquitous in that region of the world, but it’s not the same everywhere else.

    I like my desktop PC. I don’t want anything else as my primary system.

  3. JimC Says:

    Don’t get me wrong… I loved my Dell Axim 50v (wish I still had it). My Motorola Q and Verizon XV6900… not so much. My Droid – I’d give up sex first. But my desktop computer will never go away. Dual screens at work and at home. A full size keyboard. A full size wireless mouse. No mobile device will ever cause me to give up those features in the foreseeable future. Not even my 17″ laptop.

    For Application Development and Network Administration, it’s a full size desktop for me.

  4. tom b Says:

    Until the US gets up to, say, Korea’s level in internet speed, the cloud is inadequate to my needs. I need local computing power, and desktops are more cost-effective than laptops. I process a lot of big files.

    With regards to handhelds/tablets/phones, there is evidence they ARE taking over– about 25% of Americans have looked up data over the web using a smartphone. It may sound like a small number, but it may be up 25 fold or more over 5 years ago. If you believe the cloud is moving in, big time, time to up your holdings of AAPL. They own the best mobile hardware by a very large margin; they are willing to protect their IP; and they have the momentum.

  5. Jason Buberel Says:

    Desktop PCs will disappear completely when mobile devices support dual 1900x1600px digital displays with highly accelerated 3D graphics.

    So I’d give it about 25 years.

  6. Millard Says:

    As the other comments already show, it depends on your definition of “irrelevant”. Will there be fewer of them? Yep. I’m the only one in my household who still uses a desktop, but for multiple monitor support and the horsepower to mix video and music, most other platforms won’t cut it. I’m guessing we will revert to previous terms over time and start calling those “workstations” (which is what it essentially is for me). When you consider the gigabytes of video and music involved in even a small project, I don’t expect laptops to carry that burden anytime soon. All that said, I love my Droid and use it more and more for things that I might have once done from my workstation.

  7. Sam Says:

    I don’t think any of these people are saying that for niche areas such as graphics development, video editing, coding or writing in general that the keyboard, mouse, CPU & monitor (Including note/netbooks) paradigm will no longer exist. What they are saying is that the mobile phone, slate, or whatever (wristwatch?) will replace the computer as our primary doorway to the data we consume each day on the internet and will be the the center of our casual communications with others. I have a 24″ iMac and an iPhone. iMac is long in the tooth but I still need a desktop to deal with image and video manipulation. For that the iMac is fine and my iPhone takes care of communications but there are times I would prefer a bigger screen. Rather than buy a new Mac, I think an iPad or an Android slate would serve me well for my casual computing needs. I think this is going to be true of many people. I think it will be true for many office workers as well.

  8. Jason Anderson Says:

    The desktop might die, but the laptop will not. People will always need a real environment for development and working. Tablets can only go so far. Phones can only go so far.

    Also, the desktop would probably keep a small niche around for the gamers and modders.

  9. L1A Says:

    umm as long as they make them. i hardly use my laptop and iphone when at home.

  10. Tom B Says:

    @Sam: Is video still a “niche”?

  11. Sam Says:

    @ Tom B: Thanks Tom, probably did not make myself clear there. Video editing I think is niche when compared to the overall market. With so many devices now including basic tools on the device, the idea of video editing with tools like Premiere, Final Cut Pro/Express, and even iMovie or Movie Maker is going to become something that the average consumer is not going to want to use. The average consumer will shoot, do a little cutting, and share from many types of devices.

    It is hard to really take the average person into consideration on these topics sometimes. The fact that we troll tech sites (Myself included) for the latest, greatest info does not make us the average consumer. Most want as little fuss as they can get by with to consume, create, and share media.

  12. ediedi Says:

    Those guys who predict the ‘star-trek-like’ use of handheld mobile devices really seem to forget the massive ‘desktop’ computer with massive screens all over the Enterprise… something to ponder

  13. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    A few words: gaming, video editing, photo editing, software development, audio studios.
    These things require beefy hardware and big screen: a phone, or even a notebook for that matter CANNOT replace that by design (they have to be portable, thus they have a smaller screen and weaker hardware) and nothing will change that for at least a few decades.

    Also, a desktop is comfortable, so when people can choose between a netbook and a desktop to type a document, the desktop will always win even though a netbook/other portable can do that just fine.

    Until we find a way to carry along something that sports a comfortably big device without taking any place (I’m thinking holographic projection here), desktops will stay around, an I figure that will still be a long time.

  14. dholyer Says:

    In the winter of 1980 as I bought my first Home Computer, an Atari 800 8bit machine. You could have asked a very similar question. When will Main Frame Computers die. You would be better off asking when will innovation die, because in time something better than the Cell Phone/hand held PC will replace this new Gadget.

    It is not the new inventions that end usage of older stuff, it is the fact that new inventions is how you make money to live from in today’s world. And it seems that some today are trying to put an end to this method commerce in the United States.

  15. dholyer Says:

    The part I left out is I myself see no need for Mobile Computing, the reason why is I was disabled by a DUI driver last century and was told I may never walk again. The interesting part is I never listened to them and no longer use a wheelchair. I may be good for short distances but more than a football field away just like some hand held devices, I do not go that far by myself.

    If I were still mobile I to would be caught up in this mobile computing world. All I have to say is for those that are mobile just be happy you are. Just remember do not forget about those whom are not mobile and may have given you the mobile world you now live in.

  16. drew Says:

    Tom B wrote-about 25% of Americans have looked up data over the web using a smartphone

    But that does not mean they stopped using desktop computers. I have a BB curve, and I use it all the time on the road. But when I am at home, I browse the web with my desktop and a 21″ monitor, not a 2.5″. My BB complements by desktop, it does not complete with it. -Drew

  17. Wade Says:

    I agree with Drew that a phone is a complementary device. There are too many programs and applications that require the use of a desktop or notebook rather than a phone. Examples include word editing, spreadsheet editing, database creation, photo editing, video editing, CAD programs, GIS programs, etc.

    I can’t imagine writing a technical document using a keyboard no greater than the palm of my hand. I’d hate to end up with claws. I wonder what Darwin would think…

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