I never bought the hype that laptops were going to obsolesce the conventional desktop PC, nor do I buy today’s version of the hype about netbooks. The reason I didn’t is simple: display and keyboard ergonomics. I use and like a Lenovo X61 Thinkpad happily when traveling, but for steady day-to-day work nothing beats having a big ol’ keyboard and a display with lots of pixels. I have a Samsung 1100DF, 2048×1536, and it may be a huge end-of-lifed boat anchor but I won’t give it up for a flatscreen with lower resolution and less screen real estate.
But now I’m going to reverse myself and predict that smartphones — not today’s smartphones, but their descendants three to five years out, will displace the PC. Here’s what I think my computing experience is going to look like, oh, about 2014:
All my software development projects and personal papers live on the same device I make my phone calls from. It looks a lot like the G1 now sitting on the desk inches from my left hand; a handful of buttons, a small flatscreen, and a cable/charger port. My desk has three other things on it: a keyboard about the size of the one I have now, a display larger than the one I have now, and an optical drive. Wires from all three run to a small cradle base in which my phone sits; this also doubles as a USB hub, and has an Ethernet cable running to my house network. And that’s my computer.
(In a slight variation, the screen and keyboard devices don’t have wires to the phone; instead, they talk to it via wireless son-of-Bluetooth. But wires have a significant advantage, as we’ll see below.)
When I leave the house, I pull the phone from its cradle and put it in my pocket. At that point, the onboard screen becomes its display. I’m limited to low resolution and a soft keyboard through the phone’s touchscreen…until I get to my local internet cafe, which is full of display-keyboard combinations much like the one I have at home, awaiting my use. If for some reason I need an optical drive, I borrow one and plug it into the device hub that’s servicing my phone.
And that hub is definitely wired to its devices, if for no other reason that this avoids unnecessary wireless collisions over which cradle owns which devices. It also make my private traffic more difficult to snoop casually.
The key to this scenario is a combination of the convenience of a very small, portable computing device with the ergonomics of a desktop system. Actually, because I’m a hacker, I probably own two or three of these: the “phone” is whichever one has my sim card in it, leaving the others available for experimental OS installs and trial upgrades. Whenever my devices are connected to the house net, they sync file state with each other, so there’s always a recent backup handy if I lose the one from my pocket.
I am never without my phone. I am never without my computer. They’re the same device. I remember having a “desktop”, but it’s just as firmly in the past as my long-ago days using refrigerator-sized minicomputers; I’d no more go back than I would to a VAX-11/780. The distinctions we used to make between phones, computers, music/video players, personal GPSes, and PDAs already seem quaint; my “phone” is all of those.
This is why smartphones are important. They’re pretty disruptive already; you only have to look at the havoc they’re wreaking on the market for standalone GPSes to see that. What most people haven’t figured out yet is that what they’re doing to GPSes today they’re bound to do to every other sort of personal electronic device tomorrow, including personal computers. Once you’re carrying a networkable Turing-complete device on you, the economic/ergonomic case for having it do all those GPS/media-player/PC things is unanswerable. Who wants the hassle of multiple devices when they can just have one? It’s all computing, anyway.
The only step towards that it we haven’t taken yet is dissolving the marriage of our conventional screens and keyboards with those bulky tower cases beside our desks and teaching phones how to use them. Otherwise most people could meet their computing needs with their smartphones (and an outboard drive for their music/video/movie collections) today.
In a future post, I’ll explain why the same economic forces driving the convergence pretty much guarantee that the software on them will be open source.