Why companion devices should -- and will -- replace the PC

Why companion devices should -- and will -- replace the PC

Summary: While tablets -- and to a lesser extent smartphones -- are currently seen as companion devices to the PC, a day will come when they will be powerful enough to be a PC.


The other day ZDNet's mobile guru James Kendrick maintained that companion devices, such as tablets and Chromebooks, are not replacements for PC, and that people who want them to be replacements are "missing the point."

Kendrick has a good take, but when you pull back and look at the bigger picture, there are several compelling reasons why companion devices should -- and will -- eventually replace the PC.

People like Kendrick and I are happy juggling multiple devices, and we both have put systems in place that allow us to work seamlessly whether we are in front of a tablet, a smartphone, a notebook, or a desktop. We know the strengths and weaknesses of each of the platforms and are happy to work with them in order to get the benefits of each of the devices.

This allows us to get the best of all worlds.

But this method of working isn't for everyone.

Switching between multiple devices raises a whole raft of issues for both home and enterprise users. One of the biggest issues is keeping track of what data is stored where. Just moving a single document from an iPad to a notebook or desktop can tax some people's tech skills to almost the breaking point, and almost all the methods involve resorting to a third-party service, which may or may not be acceptable -- depending on the field you're working in.

It's not just different platforms that can force you into working a certain way, but different apps can do that. For example, some of the apps I use regularly on my iPad allow me to use a service such as Dropbox to store documents, but others do not, forcing me to use email or some other cloud service.

Also, I now have to remember where a particular document is, based on the app that I used to create or edit it. That's a cognitive load -- a fancy phrase for something they have to think about and remember -- that most people can do without.

Another problem -- more relevant in enterprise circles -- is support. While there's no doubt that companies and organizations have embraced BYOD, multiple devices bring with them a number of concerns related to information security, backup, remote wipe, and app control. Countless IT admins out there remember with great fondness the days when all they had to worry about was a desktop, a notebook, and perhaps a PDA.

Then there's the issue of knowing how best to spend limited resources. Is a tablet's mobility enough to offset the fact that a notebook could do so much more? What happens if you want to do something that your tablet cannot do? While I have no doubt that you can do real work on a tablet -- or even a smartphone for that matter -- if your job happens to include tasks that you can't carry out on a companion device, then chances are that companion device isn't the best way for you to be spending your money.

I have no doubt that one day what we now refer to as companion devices will replace the PC, or at least change what we think of a PC. I remember when notebooks -- or laptops as they were called back then -- were looked at as companion devices because what you gained in terms of portability you lost in terms of power and versatility. Thanks to Moore's law, notebooks are now replacements for desktop systems. It won't be long until tablets are powerful enough to handle tasks that currently need a desktop or notebook system.

That's the nature of technology.

While there's no doubt that new devices such as tablets and smartphones and convertibles are exciting -- mostly because they are new -- there's a pressure on devices to converge. Look at how a myriad of devices, such as the GPS receiver, camera, PDA, voice recorder, have coalesced into the smartphone. People have a finite carrying capacity -- not to mention money -- so a single device is always preferable to multiple devices.

As tablets become more powerful, they will take over more and more of the functions that we currently turn to a desktop or notebook PC to carry out. I see the PC of the future -- and by future I'm thinking maybe five years into the future -- will be a tablet that can plug into a dock to transform it into a desktop system.

Companion devices are the future of the PC.

Topics: Hardware, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Not For Me

    This may happen for some (majority?) people, but is definitely not true for everybody. I am of course speaking from personal experience as a developer. I require real tools and applications and only current PCs can deliver it. Companion devices to me will stay just that, companion devices.
    • ...for now

      What Adrian is saying is that today's companion devices will soon be powerful enough to be (even a developer...as I am myself) to use as your PC. But of course, that is the future.
      • Power is not the only thing that matters.

        Actually, I'd say that the top end ones are probably powerful enough right now.

        It's just that power isn't everything.

        Coding requires a special type of writing that is very structured and requires some uncommon keystrokes.

        For example, my netbook I wouldn't code in - some keys are in odd positions, and I'm even missing some keys I use often while developing (no home or end key). The keys are not really that big a deal for regular typing, but vital for some programming languages.

        Now - the iPhone? Curly braces and square braces (used a LOT for C++/C#/Java) require a three press sequence that must be repeated EVERY time you use them. Not gonna happen, no matter what the iPhone's capabilities are. Even the third party keyboards are unlikely to make those particular keys easy to use.

        Coding works best on a good keyboard - and mobile will likely never have one.

        In addition, coders practically require dual monitors - one monitor for debugging and monitoring the software while it's running, and the other for the software itself. Phones can't really do that.

        It's not really so much a matter of power as it is the form factor, and frankly small form factors don't work well for coding, and no amount of power is gonna fix that.
        • only partially correct


          I completely agree with you that coding requires good keyboard and display setup. But, for the rest -- you are missing the point.

          The point is that for many years now, computing is distributed. Let me give you an example of the computing environment our programmers work:

          They all have huge displays and good keyboards/mouse (they get the best, there is on the market). But, the "computer" (although top-class, current tech) is extremely dumb. It does not have any storage, boots diskless and all it loads in an X-Windows terminal environment. The added bonus here is that this setup is very energy efficient and completely quiet.

          The terminal connects to a backend "workstation" server of their choice/need and they have full desktop session from there. The server of course sits in the computer room, cooled, with redundant power and can be as noisy as it gets (you can't stand even a single one of them if it sits on your desk). But... each of these servers has multiple CPUs with lots of cores. So our programmes have extremely powerful desktops at their disposal.
          To write/test code, they can run the code either on the "desktop" servers, or on other servers -- these either sit in the same computer room, or somewhere else in the world.
          They can develop for any platform they need, as any OS they require can just run in a virtual machine and they see it all on a window in their desktop. That virtual machine too, can run anywhere in the world.

          Now, the original question. Can they replace their "PC" with a tablet or a smartphone?
          Absolutely! All they need that device to do is drive their display and input devices.
          Most tablets/smartphones can already do this today.

          Now, will we do this for them? No :)

          Why? Because, it makes no sense. They already are using a tablet/smartphone like device for their desktop work -- a smart terminal.
          They can of course have an tablet/smartphone on which to access their work environment(s) and if they are somewhere else, they too could attach big display, keyboard, mouse etc and have the same environment they already have on their work desk.

          Now, a comparison.. We have one guy here, who by virtue of being responsible for some of the programmer teams has managed to insist on an exception. So he has his own "local" PC installation. I am watching his troubles with joy. Here are some of the issues he had..
          - everyone else gets upgrades to their work environment, and by virtue of it all being virtualised, everyone can have the same working environment (software versions, libraries etc) synchronised in an instant. The poor guy has to handle that task himself and this costs him heavily in productivity reduction;
          - his very own PC is of course nowhere as powerful as even the weakest "workstation" server on which his colleagues work;
          - he doesn't have the huge storage available to anyone else, instantly.
          - everyone else's environment is automatically and regularly backed up, snapshots readily available etc. He has to worry about all this by himself on his isolated PC.

          In summary, I would like to say that personal computing has gone from the early adopter times, to the experimentation times and now is entering the maturity period. During the early adopter times people knew what the limitations of the PCs were, but today those knowledgeable people are already small part of the PC users population. In the experimentation period, which still continues for many.. "anything goes" so the legends of the "thick PC" being the best still prevail. In the maturity period however, costs and convenience matter more than experimentation and we see the "PC" gradually returning to be just an terminal, as it once was.
    • But future tablets/smartphones might

      In today's state of things, smartphones and tablets are no replacements for PCs and notebooks, but as technology advance and CPUs become more powerful and better on battery and as storage increase in data size while getting smaller in physical size the day might come.

      The firsts of these new devices are just arriving with the Windows 8 on tablet format like the Surface Pro, as portable as regular tablets, quite powerful and running a full Windows (I'm talking of Windows 8 tablets, not Windows RT). Storage and CPU is not quite on par with regular notebooks yet, but it's getting there.

      Imagine having all that power in the size of a smartphone. You carry it all day as a phone and then you get to your desk or at home, put it in a dock and it become a desktop system... I've been dreaming of this since almost forever!
      • no need for that

        You already have all that power and way, way more -- somewhere on Internet.
        Think of your PC and tablet and smartphone as an intelligent terminal to these and you have it already today.

        The original IBM PC was designed for that purpose. It was Microsoft who diverted from that concept.
    • Re: Not for me

      You might want to just widen your perspective. Or, if you wish, you might not -- but your competitors will surely embrace new tools and technologies that provide them with competitive advantages over you.

      One could loot at the classic PC, and consider it an companion device to their mobile phone.
  • How is that a new idea?

    "I'm thinking maybe five years into the future will be a tablet that can plug into a dock to transform it into a desktop system"

    Laptops have done this, as did early tablets. The only thing that kept that idea from being used by the mainstream consumer, and businesses was price and technology.

    10 years ago a tablet cost upwards of $2000 or more, so it really wasn't something most people would buy when a $600 or $700 computer would sufice. The thing that has changed is that we can now get full blown PC, with far better spec, in tablet form for so much less.
    You're not making a bold, groundbreaking prediction, but commenting on the natual progression of technology, one we've seen in the past, but could never afford ourselves.

    But then again once laptops dropped in price where they became easilly affordable, I'm sure someone said " five years into the future -- will be a laptop that can plug into a dock to transform it into a desktop system.
    William Farrel
  • This is true!!

    As the last 20 years have shown us, the desktop trumps the mainframe, the laptop wins over desktop, the tablet will win over the laptop and eventually the smartphone will overwrite all previous challengers.

    But that day is not today and I don't think it will came in the next 5 years either. We are reaching the limits of what is physically capable to do with silicon-based processors, now the research is geared mostly toward energy consumption, performance is a side effect.

    The tablet and the HD-LCD type monitor companion may be upon us in 10 years, not 5. And the smartphone with the holographic monitor companion may be ready in 20 years.

    For the past and present generation of people the tablet and smartphone will remain as companion devices for the forseeable future.
    • desktop trumps the mainframe

      Wow. Can to tell us, which desktop trumps what mainframe and when this did happen?
  • For some

    The average user just needs a web browser, but business users will need more.
  • Why companion devices should -- and will -- replace the PC

    Smart phones won't replace the PC just because they are too small and its much too difficult to do PC work on one. Tablets are companion device, a fad at that, and will not replace the PC because they have a very limited use. But that is where the Microsoft Surface steps in since its neither tablet nor PC but a perfect mix in between the two. The Microsoft Surface could replace both tablet and PC depending on your needs. Great innovation from Microsoft to make this possible.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • This stuff is gold

      "Great innovation from Microsoft to make this possible."

      "Thank you Microsoft for leading the way."

      "[The fact that you can't play video purchased through XBox on WP8] is exciting."

      "Surface is a hit!"

      I live for your stuff, Loverock. Either you just learned English or you really need more training in your job. No. One. Talks. Like. This.

      But it makes for sweet bloggery. Keep up the great work, tiger! Pure gold.
      • Thanks for being a fan!

        Added one more to my fan base! I love me.
        Loverock Davidson-
  • One problem with your entire post

    You base your entire blog post on the assumption that tablets all act like iPads.

    "Just moving a single document from an iPad to a notebook or desktop can tax some people's tech skills to almost the breaking point, and almost all the methods involve resorting to a third-party service, which may or may not be acceptable -- depending on the field you're working in"

    "I now have to remember where a particular document is, based on the app that I used to create or edit it."

    Hint: not all tablets are as poorly implemented as the iPad. For you to make blanket statements about tablets based on how Apple implemented theirs is like saying that no cell phone will ever replace dedicated music players because the Motorola Rokr sucked so much.

    Everything you are hoping and wishing Apple would do with their post-pc devices is here today. You don't have to wait 5 years for Apple to fix their platform. Life is too short for that.
    • "I now have to remember where a particular document is, based on the app

      that I used to create or edit it."

      Someone doesn't know their iPad very well.
    • an better response would be

      Toddy, we know you are set to hate anything Apple and evangelise people for the Microsoft experiments.

      But, you can do better. Starting with explaining to the author, that you don't need to do any of these tricks with the iPad. There are trivial ways to exchange data to/from the iPad.

      After all, you own an iPad (second generation, you told us). You know it's abilities. Right? :)

      Oh, and by the way, how you do these tasks according to Microsoft?
  • Just Good Enough

    Is the mantra for average users of technology, be it cameras or computers. Sure, the cheapest compact cameras from Canon or Panasonic take vastly better pictures and video than what you can get from the most expensive smartphones, but for most people, the picture and video quality from their smartphones is just good enough. The same is with computer-ish devices: if web access is reasonably quick and easy enough, if it plays videos and music without a fuss, if it can email and text with little effort, and if it allows typing up reports and spreadsheets, and viewing long PDF files with little issue, well.....
  • Tablets are NOT the answer

    The future of tablets will not be as replacements for desktop or laptop PC's.

    They are content-consuming devices, not content-creation devices, despite all the pundit predictions. Anyone who tells you they use a tablet to create a large spreadsheet, or create a professional document of any complexity, or create a presentation they know will impact their career is drinking the Kool-Aid. All those tasks can be done with greater speed, accuracy and precision on a laptop or desktop PC. Trying those tasks on a tablet will always be more time-consuming and frustrating, because your finger is not now and never will be the precise pointing device you need to work efficiently. For that you need a mouse, with its features like right-click context sensitve menus.

    Believe it or not, there will be some (and I count myself among them) who are already tired of trying to hold on to a device at the same time I'm trying to do something on it. I have an Android tablet that I use a lot, but I've already uninstalled most of the games I had on it because it is tiring to hold the tablet while trying to play the games. I use a pedastal case to hold the tablet now when I use it so I can set it on a table and don't have to hold it. If others are like me, you begin to wonder why you don't just have a small laptop to carry, like a netbook. I have an Acer AspireOne netbook, and it's a great little machine to get some real work done. I have MS Office-compatible Android apps on my tablet, but I find myself not using them because (without a mouse) they are frustrating to navigate through or to edit.

    Can accessing important documents to make last minute changes in a hurry be advantageous on your tablet? Absolutely! Tablets let us consume content in places and in ways we never could before. But as your primary workspace? Give me a break!

    The smart tablet buyers are those who purchase devices with standard keyboard and mouse docks they can use with their tablet to get "real" work done. But then, you've got basically a clamshell laptop with a detachable screen.

    Tablets have a place. Just not as your first choice for creation.
  • The Economy never got the memo

    Contrary to the many regurgitated pronouncements that the PC is dead, current estimates show the PC will be sticking around for a LONG time.

    From this story:

    "If this is the dawn of the “post-PC era,” then the economy never got the memo. While the tablet segment is finally growing (thank you, Apple), the five-times-larger PC segment is actually growing faster in terms of units, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

    Industry analysis firm IDC predicts worldwide growth in tablet shipments from 2013 to 2016 to be about 32 million units per year. In the same period, the rate of PC shipment growth will be about 38 million units per year.

    For 2013, IDC predicts Windows 8-based tablets will constitute merely 6% of units shipped worldwide. This means, despite all this business about the new Start Screen bridging the functionality gap across platforms, Windows 8 isn’t really about tablets. It’s about injecting PCs with the desirability of tablets. "

    It just isn't so Adrian, no matter how often the myth is repeated.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz + Your Linux Advocate