Laptops and PC sales have been on the decline. It’s no secret that consumers aren’t buying PCs anymore unless they have a special need for them. It’s the business market that is largely keeping the PC industry afloat at this point. Instead, the primary computing device of consumers is now the smartphone.
Smartphones have finally reached peak maturity. Innovation has slowed down. The industry has already cycled through its rapid growth cycles in much the same way that the PC industry did in the ’90s. It’s becoming harder and harder to tell one smartphone device apart from another. All smartphones today, from mid-range to flagship devices, are pretty much in feature parity.
Consumers recognize this, too. Sales of smartphones have started to plateau. Consumers are holding on to devices for longer than the traditional two years.
Looking further at trends, it’s reported that mobile devices (both smartphones and tablets) are the number one device used to visit websites today. Look at any SEO blog or publication. They all have countless studies showing this.
All of this points to the fact that smartphones not only will replace laptops in the future, but many could argue that they already have done so.
How did we get here, and what does the future look like?
Smartphones have been around for longer than most people realize. The smartphone didn’t begin with the iPhone. The smartphone began with Microsoft and palm.
In the early days of smartphones, both Microsoft and Palm adapted their PDA devices to work as mobile devices. The PDA was the mobile computing platform and electronic organizer of the business person in the late ’90s. Windows CE and Palm OS devices controlled the market. After cell phones became a common item in the consumer household, it only made sense to attach mobile radios to these PDAs.
These mobile operating systems were clunky at best. It wasn’t until the iPhone was released that the smartphone market was revolutionized. Apple took great care to study how people currently use, and might use in the future, smartphones to enhance their lives. They used the data they collected to create an OS that was finger first.
Google later launched Android as a competing mobile OS. Where Apple kept iOS behind closed doors, the Android OS was released as open-source. This spurred innovation. Hardware developed much faster for Android-powered phones. So much so that Motorola innovated well before it’s time and created one of the first quad-core smartphones called the Atrix.
The Atrix was also the first smartphone with a laptop dock. Motorola designed a clever desktop OS within the Atrix. That desktop OS would only come alive when the Atrix was docked in its laptop dock or monitor cradle. Ultimately it never received much fanfare. Motorola’s dual-OS design was clunky and the peripherals to power it was expensive. It made no sense for consumers to spend hundreds of dollars on a smartphone and dock when a laptop at the time would cost less money.
Later, Microsoft took a stab at combining the smartphone and desktop OS with a product called Continuum. Continuum was implemented in Microsoft’s mobile operating system. It also required a specialized dock to work, but instead of being marketed to consumers, Continuum was targeted to business customers. At the time Microsoft was trying to regain its market dominance in the smartphone industry. Unfortunately, it was too little too late as Microsoft only had roughly 1% market share in the mobile industry.
Combine the smartphone with desktop PC functions
Smartphone manufacturers wouldn’t make another major push to combine the smartphone with desktop PC functions until Samsungs S8 series was released. Samsung included a proprietary function called DeX. Unlike previous attempts from Motorola and Microsoft, DeX didn’t require proprietary hardware. Any monitor with the proper connections, coupled with a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, could turn a Samsung Galaxy S8 device into a desktop PC. Samsung has continued to release this product in later generations of its Galaxy line.
Not to be outdone, Google recently announced that Android Q, the next upcoming release of Android at the time of writing this article, would also include a desktop mode. So far, the beta version doesn’t appear ready for prime time. It’s speculated that even on release this desktop mode will be clunky and probably not ready until the following release of Android.
We should take a brief moment to mention that Apple is following similar paths. Apple has been slowly pushing consumers to its iPad and iPhone product lines as a general use computing device. This is becoming more evident as Apple starts to include more iOS-like features into Mac OSX. Recently Apple separated iOS into two branches, one for iPhones and one for iPads. This was done so that iPads could develop more desktop-like functions without impacting iPhones.
Apple has stated that Macs will be around for the foreseeable future, after all, developers need a platform to develop on. It wouldn’t be a surprise if X-Code, Apple’s IDE and development platform, was eventually released for iOS, though – especially considering how powerful the new SOCs are that Apple is developing.
What is enabling these new trends?
It’s no secret that both Motorola and Microsoft were ahead of their time. Both had a great idea, but neither had the hardware or market share to pull off that idea of combining both mobile and desktop computing. It wasn’t until recently that newer mobile device hardware could make this possible.
First, mobile technologies have completely matured. Bluetooth can now support low energy modes, increased compatibility, and increased data transfer rates. So have WiFi radios. Phones now have access to 802.11AC WiFi radios so they can send and receive data quickly. We also now have LTE technologies which allow for faster data transfer on the go.
It’s not only data radio technologies that have improved. Smartphones have access to more ram so they can handle more tasks. Likewise, the data throughput of that ram is now equivalent to what we find inside of desktop PCs.
Processing power has increased as well. It’s been stated that the new Apple SOCs and the Snapdragon 855 is capable of being as fast as an Intel i5 mobile part. Considering how little mobile processors could perform even a few years ago, that’s astounding!
Mobile GPUs have become more powerful, too. The Snapdragon 845 and Apple SOCs released last year are capable of producing graphics similar in quality to what the Xbox 360 was able to process.
Finally, the USB-C spec was released. The USB-C spec let smartphones do things that were impossible before. Smartphones can now charge batteries at even faster rates due to increased power flow. Likewise, data can be transferred at much faster rates, too. This enabled USB-C ports to also be used as video output ports so phones can be connected to monitors.
Though smartphones have largely replaced laptops already, in the future they will be our only computing device.
It’s these types of hardware evolutions that have enabled smartphones, computing devices small enough to fit into our pockets, to take over the PC and laptop market. PCs will always have a place in the world in the same way that pick-up trucks will. We have to choose the proper tool for the proper job, but much like how every person doesn’t need a truck, not every person needs a laptop anymore. In the next few years, though, we will be hard pressed to find a desktop PC or laptop in most consumers homes, and maybe most businesses, when we can have our primary computing and gaming device in our pockets at all times.
Why would we need a laptop when we can simply plug our smartphone into a mobile dock that includes a display, keyboard, and a touchpad? Why do we need a desktop PC for work when our smartphones can power multiple monitors and connect to Bluetooth mice and keyboards? Surely, we don’t. The next wave of computing will be one where we carry our computers with us everywhere and simply attach them the closest peripherals.