Thursday, 19 October 2006

Will the smartphone kill the PC?

The quotes coming out of London this week had me wondering: Is Symbian's management insane? Or are they just posturing?

Here's what they said:

"The personal computer as we know it will soon be dead, replaced by rapidly growing demand for smart mobile devices, according to the head of Symbian." --IT Pro

"Mobile phone access will be the next significant Internet phenomenon." --Symbian press release

"In five years' time you'll wonder why you need a PC at all." --John Forsyth, Symbian's Head of Market Propositions (a title that apparently means something very different in the UK than it would in the US)

They sound disturbingly like some of the most enthusiastic PDA enthusiasts did in 2000. I cringed then, and I cringe now. Here's why:

A PC, at its heart, is about information creation. The keyboard, mouse or trackpad, large screen, and large memory are all there because they're needed to manipulate words and images and numbers – spreadsheets, written documents, presentations, graphics, and databases. Despite all the hoopla about browsing and games and e-mail, creating and editing information is still the core use of the PC. That's why efforts to produce smaller or cheaper PCs with fewer features have all been failures -- take out the core productivity tools, and people won't buy the product.

Mobile devices are built around a different type of usage. They're all about information and communication access while you're on the go. They deliberately compromise information creation in order to get more mobility. So they're wonderful for voice communication, nice for simple texting, and adequate for short e-mail. But every effort to use them for heavy-duty information creation has been a miserable failure.

For a smartphones to replace PCs, they would have to take on all the features of a PC -- they'd need to input and edit text as easily as a PC, create spreadsheets as easily as a PC, edit pictures and presentations as easily as a PC, and manage large databases as easily as a PC. To do that in a small mobile device, you need a color folding screen (so you can work with large documents), either a full-size keyboard or perfect voice recognition, a pointing device a heck of a lot more sophisticated than a five-way rocker, enormous amounts of storage, and a fast processor.

Oh, and you need an operating system that doesn't break its installed base of apps every time it moves to a new version.

The color folding screen is in development, sort of, but many years away. Voice recognition is getting better on PCs, but it requires a ton of processing power and memory. I like the RIM Pearl trackball, so that might work out OK for the pointing device. But the processor requirement is a killer – a fast processor means lots of power, and battery capacity is simply not up to it today. Maybe it'll happen when we get fuel cells small enough for mobiles, sometime around the end of the decade.

I think when you add up all the uncertainties, it'll be another six years at least before you see a fully functional PC replacement as small as a mobile phone (in other words, it's beyond any realistic product planning horizon today). By that time, something the size of a PC will be even more powerful, and people may well trade up to that. But even if they don't, a mobile device with all that power and feature set could easily run Microsoft Windows itself, so why does Symbian think it's going to take over? More likely Microsoft will displace Symbian, since all the most popular productivity apps already run on Windows.

No, the realistic scenario is that PCs and smartphones (and other mobile devices to come) will prosper in parallel for years, each doing its own thing increasingly well. There will be some overlap at the edges, but the core usage of each product will remain very distinct. Meanwhile, the web apps platform will continue to gradually eat away at both operating systems, transforming them into commoditized plumbing that few people care about.

I'm not sure which OS will withstand web apps commoditization longer. Windows is more vulnerable to displacement by web apps because so many PCs have reliable high-speed web access. Symbian is somewhat protected because high-speed wireless is costly and eats even more battery power, and besides the operators are interfering with the deployment of web apps in the mobile space. On the other hand, Symbian has a lot fewer loyal applications developers than Windows, and in fact the lack of Symbian apps at the recent Symbian conference was noted by some observers. A smaller applications base means less resistance to commoditization, because there are fewer apps to replace.

Overall, if I were at either Symbian or Microsoft right now, I wouldn't be bragging too much about the inevitable forces of history. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, Symbian...

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