Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the computer. There are people discussing how popular netbooks were during the holiday season. The CEO of RIM says the BlackBerry Storm is a netbook, “just smaller”. There are tons of people speculating about apple’s plans for netbooks, tablets, and/or iPhones with slide out keyboards. And many say the market in general is ready for tablets as a new form factor.
What all these things have in common is that people are starting to see the inevitable convergence between laptops and smartphones. The Wall Street Journal published a great story about this trend a couple of months ago. State of the art smartphones are more powerful than some laptops that were sold only ten years ago, and at the same time more and more of the heavy lifting in computing is happening in the cloud. So why would anyone want to carry around a laptop when you could fit a sufficient amount of computing power and data storage in your pocket?
But all of these discussions of which form factor will win are really missing the point: the real questions are:
- What kinds of work are people doing on smartphones today that they used to do on laptops?
- What kinds of work do people still rely on laptops for?
- Could a tablet or a smartphone replace a laptop for such work?
Let’s look at the first question. Here’s a handy chart of the things many people do using smartphones or tablets today, most of which were formerly done only on laptops/netbooks. I give smartphones an edge in Communications and Maps and Directions because of the built in voice and GPS capabilities that aren’t nearly as ubiquitous on other devices.
As you can see, smartphones do a lot of things really well. But for me, the most striking aspect of all these tasks is that they are primarily oriented to looking up and consuming existing information. The only exceptions are geared towards short-form communication: typing in SMS messages, tweets, and short emails.
So now let’s look at the things that people still use laptops and netbooks for, and how well the smartphone and tablet do on those tasks today:
Clearly, this is a different kettle of fish. All of these tasks involve the creation of content, and these smaller form factor devices aren’t very good at any of these tasks.
And that brings us to the third and most important question, which I’ll now rephrase slightly: could a tablet or smartphone ever be a viable device for the creation of content and not just its consumption?
The answer, of course, is a big fat maybe. The biggest limits on the use of such devices for content creation are physical human limits:
- Most people can’t enter text as quickly on touchscreens or on the mini-keyboard of a typical smartphone.
- The screens on all smartphones are too small to show a lot of information onscreen simultaneously at a size that most people can read. Tablets are better, but even a 7 or 8 inch screen is too small for many content creation tasks.
So what can be done to make this better? We need better input and output devices for these small form-factor devices. You can already buy bluetooth keyboards, and mice wouldn’t be hard. Ironically, Palm’s much ridiculed Foleo was actually a step in the right direction, but it focused on emails instead of helping make your smartphone creation experience better. But wouldn’t it be cool if you could hook up your smartphone or tablet to a large display when you got to your office and when you got home? I’d buy two! Even better would be if it could be done wirelessly – imagine working with smartphone or tablet using your HDTV at home as the display. The possibilities are enormous, and inevitable. To my mind, making these small devices work for content creation is one of the key issues remaining to be solved in the mobile space.
Disclaimer: as always, these opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer.