Smartphones aren't smart enough to kill the PC

New screens and keyboards will let smartphones beat laptops, says Symbian. Those may not be the technologies that matter

In five years' time, John Forsyth of Symbian tells us, we'll wonder why we ever used PCs. Brave words — but he points to the lack of sparkle in PC workstation sales and new ideas in text input and screen technologies as evidence that the old order passes.

History disagrees. There is nothing like a full-sized keyboard for entering and editing data. To say that a Darwinian competition is underway to find a portable alternative is true, but tacitly admits the indeterminancy of evolution. The road to portable text entry is littered with ideas that never caught on, and both speech and gesture recognition remain more hype than hope. We could have a phone-sized entry device tomorrow that sweeps Qwerty away — but if so, nobody today can predict what it might be.

And then there's the display. We've seen them all — LCD virtual reality headsets, portable laser projectors, even 1-inch CRTs with folding virtual image lens systems that created a phantom 14-inch screen floating eerily somewhere beneath our knees. None of them are a patch on a decent desktop monitor, and recent research suggests that increasing screen size to 30 inches or above is dramatically better again. Until we get to direct cortical stimulation by neural implants — likely to be a tough sell in PC World — portable devices are going to be a no-show.

We admire Forsyth's chutzpah in suggesting that we'll be free of the PC in five years' time. May it come to pass. If anything, the precise opposite is likely to happen: as hardware gets better, the smartphone world is more vulnerable to attack from the PC. This has the ineffable advantage of standardisation: it's where new content types first come to life, where new software and services first evolve, where new ideas are most likely to get most reward for least effort.

And then there's the Internet, which is the life blood of PC innovation and the bete noir of mobile phone networks. Deploying a new idea to mobile customers involves leaping hurdle after hurdle — which handset, which software version, which network, which specialist deployment solution — each of which dilutes the customer base and increases risk. Divide and rule may have worked in the past: it's deadly today.

Until the mobile industry shakes off this hangover from past glories, no amount of flexible screen technology and fancy-pants data input magic will save it from the PC barbarians at the gates.

 

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