Jul 8, 2012
After the PC reigning supreme as the primary computing device for three decades, the post-PC era is now indisputably upon us. The trend of computing devices becoming faster, smaller and cheaper coupled with the growing ubiquity of fast wireless Internet connectivity culminated in the smartphone entering the mainstream. Last year, smartphone shipments surpassed PC shipments for the first time. More recent developments such as tablets and e-readers have also rapidly entered the mainstream. These affordable, specialized devices connected through cloud services are challenging the way we lead our lives in both the developed and developing worlds. Further, a slew of technologies in various stages of maturity (e.g. smart watches, smart cars and smart glasses) promise to further redefine the way we live and think in the near future. But essentially, post-PC era devices are simply connected computers with different sized displays. Correspondingly, a “morphing device,” a powerful and portable device that elegantly transforms to power different-sized displays and seamlessly adapts to different contexts, is patently desirable. Such a device with the smartphone at its core is not just feasible but also inevitable.
The death of the desktop and the rise of the morphing laptop
One type of morphing device is commonplace today: the laptop that morphs into a desktop. Although PCs are becoming less relevant in the grand scheme of things, within the PC class of devices, desktops have been becoming less relevant in relation to laptops for quite some time. There was a time when PC hardware was improving so rapidly that your PC felt obsolete soon after you bought it. You had to replace your PC at least every couple of years. Doesn’t that sound like smartphone technology today? But PC technology has matured and ownership lifecycles are much longer now. Over time, as laptops continued to become smaller, cheaper and more powerful, the power versus size equation of laptops became more and more appealing. In the last quarter of 2008, laptop sales overtook desktop sales for the first time. Today, desktops are used only for very computationally intensive niche enthusiast or professional applications like software development, high-end gaming, video editing and 3D graphics work. Meanwhile, laptops have reached the point where they have lots of latent computing power, more power than is really required for regular use. Accordingly, today’s laptops rarely run at full performance. Instead, they throttle back processor performance depending on what applications are running to conserve battery life. Although desktops are all but dead for everyday consumers, the appeal of a large desktop-sized display still remains, either on its own or as a primary display with the laptop as a secondary display. Thanks to its latent computing power, any mid-range laptop today will happily power a large high resolution display in addition to it’s own. Plug in a mouse and an external full-sized keyboard and the transformation from a laptop to a desktop is complete. In the context of the morphing laptop, I refer to the desktop monitor as a “morph-capable display” or “child device.”
The smartphone as the center of the personal computing universe
Similarly smartphone technology is maturing rapidly. On average, phone screens have been steadily growing in size. However, unless our fingers and pockets miraculously grow overnight, phones cannot practically have screens larger than around 5 inches. Today’s most advanced phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III and the HTC One X with 4.8/4.7 inch displays have all but reached this limit. These are bright, high-contrast displays sporting pixel densities of more than 300 pixels per inch, which according to Apple, is the maximum number of pixels that the human retina can distinguish at 10 – 12 inches, the normal viewing distance for a phone. Both these phones are wafer thin with a sub-9mm thickness. Do we really need phones slimmer than that? They also have quad core processors. Do eight cores really make sense? While there is room for improvement in areas such as battery life, most hardware specifications are clearly plateauing.
So what’s next then? Simply, that the hardware technology available in the top-of-the-line phones of today will rapidly become much cheaper and therefore much more accessible by the mainstream consumer. Further, manufacturers will be able to pack in more and more processing power into these phones while keeping costs down, resulting in lots of latent computing power. So much in fact that the smartphone will be able to drive all of our personal computing displays from watches to desktops to cars.
Let us look at how the smartphone might power the devices we’re most familiar with. If we can currently morph a laptop into a desktop by adding a large display and a keyboard and mouse, then it’s not hard to imagine a powerful phone that morphs into a tablet. And that tablet into a laptop and that laptop into a desktop! In fact, this kind of technology is already starting to appear. The innovative upcoming Asus PadFone is a smartphone that slots in to the “PadFone station” (essentially just a dumb tablet-sized display) to convert it into a tablet. A keyboard dock converts it into a laptop-like device. It even has a stylus that doubles as a Bluetooth headset for using the phone while in its tablet incarnation. I don’t believe it can power a desktop-sized display…yet. It certainly could though; Ubuntu for Android should leave you in no doubt that high-end phones are powerful enough for traditional PC-style computing. Even though it has several drawbacks, the PadFone is the currently the best embodiment of the concept of the morphing device and a glimpse of what the future holds.
Wireless technologies will play a key role in absorbing the morphing device into the mainstream while augmenting its capabilities. Currently, to morph a laptop into a desktop we can connect a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse wirelessly, but still have to physically plug the desktop monitor into the display port of the laptop. This is set to change as technologies like WiDi and WirelessHD, which can transmit an HD video signal wirelessly to a larger display, become de rigueur. Wireless display technology, coupled with NFC (near field communication) that allows devices in close proximity to communicate with each other, can make device morphing natural and spontaneous. Imagine setting your NFC-equipped laptop on your desk. As you do that, the NFC sensors in the two 22” displays on your desktop bring them to life. Yes, you will still have to plug the power adapter into your laptop to charge it, but there’s an upcoming cure for that too—inductive charging! Similarly, imagine a smartphone equipped with wireless display. Touch it to your “dumb tablet display” and it awakens. Since it is not physically docked to the tablet, you can continue using your phone as before—it simply powers the tablet in addition. Set both on your desk and you can now run large screen applications on your desktop monitor in addition to the tablet.
The morphing smartphone will obviate the need for internal electronics (processor, memory, graphics, storage, network/cellular connectivity, audio etc.) in the child devices that it morphs into, leaving essentially dumb displays behind. Since these internal electronics make up the bulk of the cost, morph-capable displays will be extremely thin, light and affordable. My current laptop, the 256GB 13” MacBook Air, is what I consider to be the optimum balance between portability and power. It has a thickness that varies between 0.11 and 0.68 inches, weighs 2.96 pounds and retails for $1,499. With most internal electronics gone, the morph-capable equivalent – essentially just a screen, keyboard and trackpad – would be as thin as the current one at its thinnest point and weigh a fraction as much: a mere sliver at .11 inches (3mm) and ~10 ounces (300g)! Instead of replicating electronics as they do currently, morph-capable devices could supplement the smartphone’s electronics with specialized capabilities. For example, the PadFone station has a large battery in it that can charge the phone. Similarly, a keyboard dock could have 3D acceleration hardware to drive high-end graphics applications such as games on a large display. A desktop monitor could have additional storage or connectivity via USB ports. Additionally, when you upgrade the phone, all of the devices that it morphs into get upgraded simultaneously. Further, you can upgrade the child devices independently while retaining their smarts in the morphing phone. One might argue that the morphing device creates too much dependency on the phone, but all data will be stored / backed up on the cloud, so if your phone gets lost or stolen or goes belly up, you simply need to get a new one and restore settings and data from the cloud.
The morphing smartphone will vastly improve the affordability of post-PC era technologies that are set to permeate every aspect of our daily lives. In the car of the near future, ageing audio system panels with analog buttons will be replaced by a main touchscreen for applications like navigation and audio. A customizable display for the driver will replace traditional analogue gauges. Anti-socially, but inevitably, we will also see touchscreens for rear passengers for entertainment applications – music, videos and games. Ford’s SYNC hints at the future of personal automotive computing. Wearable computing is also entering the mainstream. A smart watch runs simple apps via an interface on your wrist, for hands-free activities like sporting and fitness. The iPod Nano with a watch strap , the Sony SmartWatch and the Pebble are some early examples of this technology. In the same vein, Google’s Project Glass will offer a hands-free computing environment via a heads-up display and natural language voice commands. These types of devices fit in perfectly into the model of the morphing smartphone. To supplement the phone’s core capabilities, a car could have a more accurate GPS and specialized electronics for diagnostics. A smart watch could have a heart rate monitor and a pedometer. For adventure sports such as hang-gliding it could have an altimeter and a barometer. With each additional device, the benefits of being able the upgrade the phone and the child device independently are cumulative. Just got a new car? No problem—just dock your phone into the main console and your personalized display will come up just as before, maybe on a bigger, brighter and sharper display. Perhaps the kids can now play games against each other via the new morph-capable displays in the back seats.
The morphing OS is key in the battle for post-PC era supremacy
The success of the morphing phone hinges on a crucial factor: the morphing operating system, a full-fledged desktop OS at its core with functionality and features borrowed from a phone OS. With the ability to support numerous devices, the morphing operating system needs to combine the usability of a phone OS with the power of a desktop OS. The desktop-style features would largely be hidden until the phone is morphed into a device with a larger display such as a tablet or a desktop monitor. Conversely, it would present more minimally on the likes of automotive displays, smart watches and smart glasses.
The incumbent heavyweights with desktop and mobile OS’s—Google, Apple and Microsoft—are in the best position to push such a hybrid OS. And their respective operating systems are beginning to converge. While Google initially released different versions of its mobile operating system for tablets and phones, they were merged in version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). Further, Android already powers numerous devices such as smart watches, headphones, refrigerators, smart TVs, home automation systems and fitness equipment. Sergey Brin has publicly stated that Android and Chrome OS (the company’s desktop OS) are likely to converge over time. Similarly, Apple’s mobile OS iOS powers both the iPhone and the iPad. OS X Lion, the current version of its desktop OS borrows features such as multitouch gestures, App Store and Launcher from iOS. Mountain Lion, the next version, borrows numerous more such as Messages, Notes, Reminders and Notification Center.
Interestingly, Microsoft, the underdog in this space has a powerful edge over Google and Apple. The dominant tablet operating systems iOS and Android are hopelessly inadequate for anything that resembles “work.” However, Microsoft’s recently announced Surface tablet runs Windows 8, a full-fledged desktop operating system. Even more significantly, the next version of its phone OS is built around the core of Windows.