Converged PC + mobile utopia: How far away are we?

Summary:Today's connected professionals carry too many devices. Make no mistake though, convergence is coming and it will have profound effects on both users and the tech industry.

Let's face it, today's hyper-connected professionals have too many technology tools that do too many redundant things. And, while that redundancy can be a good thing when one of the devices doesn't work or runs out of power, it also means that our devices are destined to consolidate because normal people eventually get tired of having too many specialized tools. Most would would prefer a Swiss Army Knife.

In the gadget world, we've already seen this happening with point-and-shoot cameras, GPS navigators, and MP3 players. Most of them have been wiped out as individual devices and simply absorbed into smartphones -- the Swiss Army Knife of modern tech.

However, there's also a new redundancy, perhaps the biggest redundancy. As smartphones get faster and more powerful while the technology that runs today's computers gets smaller and more power-efficient, the two are destined for a collision course. Plus, now we have tablets thrown into the mix.

I know way too many people who now carry a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone (sometimes two). In fact, I'm one of them. However, I predict that five years from now, this won't be the case. Most people will carry one device. The question, of course, is which device will it be?

Judging by the current trajectory of these technologies, it will be something akin to what a smartphone or tablet looks like today, although with a big asterisk.

I realize this may sound strange since just last week I wrote the article "Tablets are for people who hate computers" in which I talked about the fact that people who are already highly-proficient with computers tend to end up frustrated with tablets.

But, what I'm talking about now is a future device that looks like today's smartphone or tablet but has all of the power of today's personal computer. A preliminary example is the Motorola Atrix, which is a high-powered smartphone that can also slide into a desktop dock or a laptop dock and function like a full PC with a keyboard, mouse, and large LCD monitor. The big difference is that the smartphones of 2013 and 2014 are going to be powerful enough to run a full desktop OS that can do virtually everything today's computers can do, including photo editing and high definition video conferencing. The other big difference is that future smartphones won't have to physically dock. They'll use an encrypted wireless docking technology that will function similar to Wireless USB and the Palm Touchstone charger.

When those factors come together, the smartphone will become the computer. It will not only be your communications device, but, with a combination of the cloud and local syncing, it will also hold the key to accessing all of your apps, data, and media no matter whether you're operating on the phone itself, or from a wireless docking station with keyboard/mouse/monitor at your office, or wirelessly tethered to your flatscreen TV at home.

The same will be true of tablets. They will be capable of docking and becoming a fully functional PCs. We're already seeing glimpses of this today with the HP TouchPad and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer. The future scenario for tablets will be nearly identical to what I mentioned above for smartphones. The big question will be whether you want a smartphone or a tablet. People who make more phone calls and tend to be more mobile and active will likely opt for smartphones. People who do more visual tasks will likely to gravitate toward tablets.

One thing to note is that for all of the people who choose smartphones, there will still be a market for a low-cost color e-reader (under $100) similar to today's Amazon Kindle. I think we'll see a lot more people using those as companion devices to smartphones than opting for both a tablet and a smartphone.

And, yes, there will still be exceptions. Video editing, multimedia production, CAD, and software development, for example, will all still be done on full desktop computers. But, these will increasingly become highly specialized systems, almost like today's workgroup servers.

There's also one other interesting factor to watch in this whole process. A lot of the current tech titans are likely going to fight this trend because they won't want to cannibalize any of their current revenue streams. They'd prefer to sell you a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop. That's what Apple wants with iOS and Mac. That what Samsung wants with Android and Windows. Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUS want to replicate what Samsung is doing. HP wants to do the same thing, but with WebOS all around. None of them are going to be motivated to deliver a converged device instead of selling you three devices. That's going to leave the door open for someone unexpected to seize the opportunity.

Next week, I'll tell you who it might be.

Topics: Smartphones, Hardware, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

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