Can the smartphone replace the laptop?

Craig Mathias, contributing writer

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At the annual Interop conference in Las Vegas, I recently chaired a session titled "Is Your Next Laptop a Smartphone?" and the packed house had the opportunity to consider one of the most interesting possibilities in mobile computing and communications today -- powerful smartphones that can do everything a laptop can do.

Now, the smartphone might not be one's first choice for spreadsheets and documents, but let's face it, everybody has one (in business, anyway, all over the world), and those that have one will buy a new one sometime in the next two years as cellular contracts expire and products and wireless technologies continue their rapid evolution. The level of capability in contemporary smartphones is remarkable and continues to grow.

Many people will be able to leave their laptop at the office and handle essentially all of their mobile computing and communications tasks with a pocket-sized device.

Smartphones are as powerful as PCs from just a few years ago, with significantly better software, user interfaces, and flexibility. Let me skip ahead a little here. There was universal agreement among the panelists at Interop that smartphones won't replace the laptop for typical business users, but over the next few years, many people -- my guess is 12% to 15% of business users -- will be able to leave their laptop at the office and handle essentially all of their mobile computing and communications tasks with a pocket-sized device.

As you might guess, size here is both an advantage and a challenge. Smartphones need to be as small as possible for mobility while still maximizing the size of the keyboard and the display. The keyboard on a smartphone, be it physical or screen-based, is obviously never going to get bigger than is acceptable for the two-thumb typing technique, although I predict a surge in add-on Bluetooth and USB keyboards that can be quite effective for writing longer missives. The display is similarly constrained, although being able to connect (via wireless) to an external display with better resolution -- the TV in one's hotel room, for example -- should become quite popular in the future.

Networking, storage and processing aren't really issues anymore, as tiny devices can have lots of each, and a connection to the Internet addresses any concerns here in the same fashion as for computer users everywhere. A much bigger issue is battery life, which is why I continue to recommend smartphones with either (ideally) replaceable or (if you must) external batteries. Another session that I chaired at Interop dealt with the power issue (under a "green" label that proved to be a surprisingly poor attendance draw), and we have some good answers here as well.

So, you might conclude at this point that there are really no showstoppers with respect to replacing a laptop computer of any form with a smartphone. But, should you conclude as such, you would be ignoring the effect of the culture surrounding the PC: From IT departments to enterprise users to just about every technology user on the planet, the PC is viewed as the mainstay of personal and corporate IT and thus a core requirement. There was some agreement among the panelists that mobile Internet devices/netbooks/smartbooks/whatever might replace traditional notebook PCs for some users; they already have for me, for example. But it is nevertheless very likely that we'll still be carrying both a notebook or MID and a smartphone for some time -- well into the foreseeable future. I think that my 12% to 15% number above will grow over time, however, as Web services and cloud computing become the popular, if not dominant, model for enterprise IT.

I'll cover the tradeoffs inherent in local processing and storage vs. the Web services/cloud model in more detail later this year, but for now the convenience of needing only one tiny device -- again, one that everyone needs to carry anyway -- is so compelling that more progress toward the single-device solution is certain. Personally, as one who lugs way too much technology around every week, I can't wait.


About the author: Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass. The company works with manufacturers, network operators, enterprises, and the financial community in technology assessment and analysis, strategy development, product specification and design, product marketing, program management, education and training, and the integration of emerging technologies into new and existing business operations, across a broad range of markets and applications. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies and has published numerous technical and overview articles on a variety of topics. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows, and he is currently a member of the advisory boards for the Interop (Las Vegas and New York) and Mobile Internet World conferences. Craig is also the program chair for the Mobile Business Expo (MBX) conferences. He serves as a monthly columnist for SearchMobileComputing.com andComputerworld.com and is an ardent blogger ("Nearpoints") for networkworld.com. He holds a Sc.B. degree in applied mathematics/computer science from Brown University.

This was first published in August 2009

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