Are computers just big smartphones?

One of the most curious and unintended side effects of rapid innovation is on language. Rather than making words up, we prefer to frame things in analogy and reference. That’s why we still talk about “opening a window” on a computer, and why we “cut and paste” text and save “bookmarks”. And that’s why we’re now getting into the habit of calling smartphones—particularly powerful devices like the iPhone and Android handsets—“handheld computers” or “mobile computers”.

But at some point in the life-cycle of an invention, it takes centre stage and begins to generate its own terms of reference. Just as new innovations encourage new uses of old words, so mature ones generate entirely new words. We begin to compare things to them rather than the other way around. Which begs the question: are computers just big smartphones?

It might seem absurd to the millions of us who have spent decades working with laptops and desktops, but to someone who has never used a computer before it might not be quite so ludicrous. There are least three reasons why smartphones may soon dominate our frame of reference.

The first is innovation. The cutting edge of any market generates the most interest and therefore the most conversation. Personal computers held that ground for a good two decades, but they are now a thoroughly mature technology.

In fact many of the most recent innovations in PCs have been driven by ideas from cellphones. Apple’s trackpad, now such an invaluable tool on their laptops, was inherited from the iPhone’s touch screen. When a rumour recently surfaced that Facebook might begin using the same energy efficient chips that cellphones use to power their servers, it didn’t seem all that ridiculous.

A second reason is the reach of the technology. Even after 30 years, the personal computer is still only used by about 1,5-billion people. That’s a big number, until you look at mobile phone usage at over four and a half billion. Yes, smartphones are currently too expensive for the huddled masses, but the industry has a way of driving down prices year after year. By 2015 even the relatively poor will be able to afford what we now call a smartphone.

The third and perhaps most unexpected reason is software. With their online application (“app”) stores, smartphone makers have pioneered a new way of distributing software. Installing an app on your phone is so easy a child can do it, and the costs are generally so low (a few dollars at most) that people buy lots of them. Literally billions of these small pieces of software have been sold in only a few years.

But the real stroke of genius was in opening their platforms to external developers, and allowing them to sell their wares directly to the public. Apple will soon sell its five billionth app, and while it keeps 30% of the price of each unit sold, it has made dozens of independent developers around the world into overnight millionaires.

Contrast this to the desktop software market, controlled almost entirely by pre-internet dinosaurs like Microsoft and Adobe. They are overjoyed when they sell a few million extra copies of their latest version, and they certainly aren’t in the business of making the independents richer.

If you need further convincing, have a peek at Apple’s latest financial results. In their last financial year they sold about nine million of their (legendarily expensive) computers. That sounds impressive until you realise they sold very close to 40-million iPhones, and that phones now account for nearly a third of their revenues. This is the same company that was called Apple Computer until 2007.

You might argue that this is all about form suiting function. No one is going to spend eight hours a day working on a smartphone with a tiny keyboard and a 10cm screen. Fair point, but how long before we’re attaching external screens and keyboards to phones? The newest phones already have more power and memory than some desktops did three years ago. Imagine the savings on desk space alone. And imagine never having to “sync” your phone with your computer ever again.

So are personal computers going to disappear overnight? Highly unlikely. If anything they will simply become lighter, absorb innovations like touch screens and better batteries, and generally become more convenient to use on the go. One thing is certain though—they are no longer in the driving seat.

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