Foldable phones could finally push office workers away from the PC

Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fold could eventually unseat the traditional PC as the dominant device for corporate knowledge workers.

Samsung aims to popularize the foldable screen, but what will we do with it? Samsung has teased the future of smartphones "unfolding," but while the technology is interesting it's unclear whether the company can give us real use cases that'll make us want to part with our cash.

For those tired of carrying both a phone and computer, the future is about to get a lot brighter and more flexible. Foldable devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, have the best chance yet of being a successful phone/PC combo device for both consumers and office workers. But before I explain why foldables could replace your smartphone and PC, it's important to examine the question of whether general-computing devices are still needed as we move through the post-PC era.

General-purpose computing devices still have a place in a post-PC world

In a 1999 speech, David Clark, a senior scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, described a "post PC world" where everything has a computer in it, everything is networked, and we access services (entertainment, communication, commerce, productivity, etc.) through a variety of devices instead a PC. Clark saw a world filled not with self-sufficient, completely programmable devices -- such as a desktop, laptop, or "palm top" -- but with lots of connected devices that depend on network services. As Jason Perlow wrote on ZDNet back in 2012, "To put it bluntly, the Post-PC world represents a displacement of computing from the traditional, 30-year-old Intel architecture used on desktop to the Datacenter and the Cloud."

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

Twenty years later, our homes are filled with smart devices, our watches send health data into the cloud, we stream movies directly to our TVs, and I regularly buy sodas from the office vending machine with my phone. (Clark described this very "Coke machine of the future" scenario in his speech.) Likewise in the corporate world, on-premise data centers have largely given way to cloud-based services for everything from office productivity apps and CRM software to storage and compute. This certainly sounds like the post-PC, everything-as-a-service era Clark described. So, why am I still writing this article on a PC (a 2016 MacBook Pro in case you're wondering)?

Part of the answer has to do with the resilience of the PC, which Bill Gates and Steve Jobs famously discussed during the D5 conference in 2007. During an interview, the pair described a world with general-purpose computing devices as well as specialized, service-dependent post-PC devices. "This general purpose device is going to continue to be with us and morph with us, whether it's a tablet or a notebook or, you know, a big curved desktop that you have at your house or whatever it might be," said Jobs.

We may eventually enter the fully post-PC world that Perlow predicted in 2012 where "the majority of business professionals will be using extremely inexpensive thin notebooks, tablets and thin clients (sub $500) which will utilize any number of software technologies that run within the browser or will use next-generation Web-based APIs..," but we're not there yet.

Perlow gives us another part of the answer in a 2011 ZDNet article. "I find it very hard to accept that office workers will be able to transition completely away from mice, keyboards and large monitors to touchscreen tablets and still remain productive," wrote Perlow.

For better or worse, office workers are still in the "PC-plus" era Gates outlined in a 1999 Newsweek op-ed where the PC remains "the primary computing tool" but works "in tandem with other cool devices."

My next PC will be a phone/laptop combo

So, this brings us back to the discussion of what the next generation of general-computing devices will be. To meet the needs of today's highly mobile knowledge workers,  the next-generation device should have the following:

  • Hardware on par with today's high-end tablets: Thin-clients and low-power notebooks will continue to expand their presence, but local processing, storage, and graphics will still be needed in the near- and medium-term.
  • Keyboard, mouse/trackpad, and external display support: For many, smartphones have become the dominant computing device. But, it's still exceeding inefficient to work with multiple apps, view large amounts of information, or manipulate documents on even the largest phone screens and without the precision of a mouse or trackpad.
  • Laptop- or tablet-sized touch display with a stylus: The device can't suddenly become dramatically less productive when not connected to an external input source or display. That's the whole point of a mobile device.
  • Constant connectivity and cellular access: If it's going to replace your phone, it has to be a phone. The device must provide voice and data connectivity through cellular and data through Wi-Fi.
  • Phone-like form factor and function: This one is the real kicker. There are laptops and tablets with cellular connectivity that allow you to make and receive calls. But everyone I know with one of these devices also has a mobile phone. Why? Because none of these devices are as portable as a phone. Even really big phones, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 with its 6.4-inch display, are much easier to put in a pocket or handbag than a tablet or laptop.

The next generation of PC needs to tick all those boxes. As Gates said in the D5 interview, "Now, if we could ever get a screen that would just roll out like a scroll, you know, then you might be able to have the device that did everything." Foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X are moving very close to that device.

SEE: Samsung Galaxy Fold: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER:

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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