The future face of computing

You might not have noticed, since you’re most likely looking at your smartphone, but a significant amount of time people spend on the internet is through a mobile device, dominantly said smartphone. We’ve got some nifty charts lined up from ComScore so you can see just how much.

[[Had an image here, but need to go track it down. Hopefully I don't forget. ed.]]

As is illustrated in the above chart, things start shifting around 2012 when mobiles started to take over from desktops (this includes laptops, I presume), and that gap continues to widen. In general, this shows what we likely already know just from looking around; when you need the internet, you reach for your phone around two out of every three times. What’s even more interesting is that age is not a factor anymore. Older people may not use the internet as much, or grab their smartphone as often, but the trend is remarkably stable across the scope.

[[Same here. ed.]]

In all cases, 19 to 65 and up, people tend to grab their smartphone first. This chart shows it’s when the user has both a smartphone and a tablet, but the trending is clear. Mobiles are taking over the internet. What you don’t need a chart to see is that so-called phablets appear to have won, with even Apple having rolled out a larger mobile with the release of the iPhone 6 Plus, but that’s a discussion for another story. Here, we are going to talk about the future of computing, and the above data is where we are at now.

Pocket Power

Computing comes in many diverse forms these days, there are smartphones (natch), feature phones (the not-cool ones), tablets, laptops in various form factors, and desktops of endless variety. If only that were it, however. There are also smart TVs, smart DVD and Blu-Ray players, video game consoles like the Wii U, PlayStation 4, and the Xbox One, scads of media devices like Apple TV, Roku, and the Chrome Stick, and enough smart watches to choke a Blue Whale. If that wasn’t enough, there are photo frames, radios, and even TV remotes that use the internet to make them better (though that’s debatable).

In part, it’s no wonder people gravitate to their mobile devices when seeking information. There’s so much… internet, it’s hard to break it down into the small, easy-to-swallow pieces user’s desire. This is a primary emotional component in why certain apps do so well on the various App Stores. The better an app performs at granting the desired instant gratification, the more likely users will treat it as their Go-To solution. It explains a lot when you consider that desktops in general don’t have “apps” and tablets can’t fit in your pocket (ignoring that some phones have a hard time fitting into the average pocket). To their credit, Microsoft does have apps on their Windows 8 and 10 desktops, but the app store has yet to mature and present developers with an enticing potential marketplace.

Future Tense

As you can well imagine, with PC sales dropping like a stone and smartphone and tablet sales soaring, systems producers are scrambling to figure out what the consumer is going to want in the next two to five years, and it’s hard to imagine where that might go. I thought I’d have a think on it and see if I can’t use the old Predict-O-Tron to suss out a few things. First, however, let’s remind ourselves about the categories we’re looking at:

  • Mobile phones (i.e., Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and other mobile OS)
  • Ultraportable devices (i.e., iOS & Android tablets, ChromeBooks)
  • Portable devices (i.e., PC & Mac tablets, laptops, 2-in-1s, convertibles)
  • Micro systems (i.e., PC sticks, Intel NUC, & other tiny non-portables)
  • Desktop systems (i.e., small form factor, mini tower, tower, and All-in-one systems)
  • Gaming systems (i.e., Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, Nintendo’s Wii U)
  • Smart systems (i.e., home media, TVs, and DVD/BR players)

With that in mind, let’s dig into what might happen by 2020:

  • The Phablet – I don’t think phone sizes are going to increase much from here on out. There’s little incentive for consumers to have a seven or eight inch phone they can’t fit into their pockets. 5-5.5″ devices are going to inhabit the sweet spot in this market, while smaller devices will continue to fill the needs of the budget market. As always, there will be outliers, but they will be few and, unless extremely crafty, won’t last long. Advances will continue in hardware and software development. We’ll likely see better cameras, some interesting iterations of curved displays, and desktop-style docking as Microsoft revealed with its new Lumia 950 and 950XL. I have a feeling that we might see some edge-less displays in the next few years, which would allow the introduction of a workable folding device.
  • The CPU – Not many people but hardcore nerds talk about CPUs all that much, but they are critical to computing. Clock speeds won’t likely get any higher. They’ve been in stasis for a number of years already. What has grown are the number of cores, the efficiency of manufacturing, and the ability to reduce the amount of heat produced. One key example is Intel’s Atom line. When they first appeared, they were anemic and slow. The current crop is fast, capable, and efficient. As such, we will continue to see advances in multi-core parts, further reductions in heat production and power consumption, and increased functionality to handle complex operations and multi-tasking.
  • Desktop systems – Due to the continued miniaturization of computer tech, we will witness the ongoing death of the general purpose desktop. The “box” remains a staple in enterprise deployments, but even that’s being eaten away by the laptop. The consumer market is already being euthanized with tablets and will likely be replaced by the selection of small form factor and tiny desktop systems like Intel’s NUC series and an increasing number of all-in-one systems similar to Apple’s iMac. I have a feeling these won’t catch fire, but they will maintain at least some level of presence in the market.
  • The Laptop – If anything has been an effective agent of chaos against the forces of the desktop, it’s the laptop. Long gone are the days when a laptop was three or more times more costly than a desktop PC, and with the growing performance of low cost CPU parts, the multi-component relic of the PC just isn’t appetizing to many consumers. Yet, since the introduction of the iPad, Apple’s ultimate disruptor, the laptop has been facing it’s own foe, and fought back hard. The disastrous “netbook” era was short lived and ill conceived as a possible combatant to the tablet, so more tablets were released.
    The most compelling change in the laptop battle, however, is convergence. In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them, or, if you’re the Borg, assimilate them. Asus’ popular Transformer line of 2-in-1 devices is testament to that, but it’s Microsoft’s surprise rollout of the gorgeous and amazing Surface Book that is likely going to act as a template for the future of the laptop. By simply removing the display, you get a tablet PC. Reattaching the display, you get a full on laptop with longer battery life and even gaming-grade discrete graphics as an option. I predict that various forms of this configuration will become popular. There is, however, the matter of systems interconnect. After all, nobody will want a tablet that weighs five pounds, even if it sports a Core i7 and 32GBs of RAM. We may see some very interesting innovations in this particular space.
  • All The Others – There’s not much more to say, really. Gaming systems are going to get more game-ier. It’s unlikely that Sony or Microsoft will diverge from their course. Both command very lucrative markets and both see only each other as their nemesis. Nintendo, on the other hand, literally owns the mobile, dedicated gaming market, but still have to wage war against the monster that is smartphone gaming. I’d bet my shirt that Nintendo knows they need to emphasize that some games are just better with physical controls and will offer some spin on that when codename “NX” is revealed sometime next year. They’ve finally figured out they need to release some games on iOS and Android, but to really thrive they need to continue to innovate.
    Smart devices are going to get smart-ier. It’s not clear what will happen in the smart device vs. smart add-on war. Smart TVs lock you into that manufacturers ecosystem, while add-on devices like the Roku offer a much wider range of options. It will be interesting to see if anyone develops a line of TVs that have a low-cost, interchangeable dock in the foot that allows the attachment of an Apple TV or Roku 4 box and just bypass “smart” altogether. That’d be smart, if you’ll pardon the pun. If anything takes off in consumer electronics, though, I think it will be better, open, touch-and-pair wireless display technology using a combination of NFC and Wifi. The stupid dongle thing is a nuisance and restrictive.

In general, much of what is likely to come in the next five years won’t be astonishing, but iterative, an evolution, if you will, and much of it will allow access to the internet in some form. I can’t predict major breakthroughs that we’ll need to move beyond where we are now, but there’s still plenty of room in the tech that we have to continue development. For example, if the Surface Book were to really spawn a PC replacement market, it would need to have enough functionality to operate as a tablet without the base, but still be able to offer real power when docked. That’s going to require some real innovations in board-level interconnectivity as well as license allowances for dual CPU systems in the consumer market.

I also expect we’ll see some new takes on the docked smartphone tablet in the next few years. If you look at how Microsoft uses a tiny little dock to turn their Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL into a desktop analog, you can easily imagine that functionality being integrated into tablet and laptop forms. It’s just dead until you slide in your phone. This is nothing new. The Palm Foleo was one of the more beautiful implementations of this concept, but it was cancelled before it was released. There was going to be a Foleo 2, but that never took form as Palm was falling apart, was bought by HP, and then unceremoniously shut down. More recently, the Motorola Atrix 4G and the optional laptop dock was actually available, but Incipio’s Clambook never really materialized. About the only place you can get such functionality is BlackBerry’s elegant Blend for OS 10.3, Windows and Mac OS X desktop software that lets you work on your BlackBerry via your system’s keyboard and mouse, even without a direct internet connection.

Whatever happens, though, it promises to be interesting. After all, we’ve seen Apple copying from others instead of defining the market and Microsoft come from being an oldster with stars in it’s eyes about the Good Old Days to being one of the hottest shops for real innovation in just the last few years. It’s going to be a real hoot to see what comes down the pike next to thrill and entice us.