Mobile devices replace the PC? Not so fast

Smartphones are great for 'content consumption,' but not for 'content creation.'
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

The buzz is so loud it's deafening: goodbye PC/laptop, hello mobile device. All the excitement and innovation seems to be around mobile devices, and PCs (and I include laptops in this category) are yesterday's legacy toast.

IDC just published a report that proclaims “the PC-centric era is over.” According to a summary in the New York Times, IDC predicts that within 18 months, "non-PC devices capable of running software applications will outsell PCs. In tablets. Apple’s iPad will remain the leader, but lower-cost tablets will begin making inroads, especially as demand for tablets really takes off in emerging markets."

IDC predicts that by next year, "half of the 2.1 billion people who regularly use the Internet will do so using non-PC devices."

In another perspective, iPass just issued the results of a survey that highlights research that 37 percent of workers thought another device would soon take the role of PCs/laptops, and 27 percent believed it would be the iPad or another tablet.

In a commentary posted at TechCrunch, Steve Cheney talks about the significant shift in emphasis taking place from the PC model to small form-factor mobile devices. As Cheney describes it: “On the heels of the latest Android phone, the Sprint HTC EVO, and ... iPhone 4, it seems like mobile devices and platforms are innovating at about five times the pace of personal computers. Rapid advancement in mobile is often attributed to the natural disruption by which emerging industries innovate quickly, while established markets like PCs follow a slower, more sustained trajectory ... It’s very likely that within five years, tablets, smartphones, and other 'mobile devices' will have permanently left PC innovation behind.”

There's no denying that mobility is the rule of the new workplace and workforce going forward, especially in this hyper-competitive era. Salespeople visiting prospects can enter essential data and provide on-the-spot quotes. Insurance field adjusters can move about their assignments with these devices, providing real-time feeds to central offices to help quickly settle open claims. It's a lot easier to move about with a mobile device than to lug a laptop. Plus, there's no fussing with operating systems – it just turns on and off.

However, are mobile devices really capable of doing much of the heavy lifting required in the daily workloads of many managers and employees? On a mobile device, creating documents would be all-thumbs. It would have been too painful to try to write this blog post from my smartphone. And I don't think anyone would enjoy the experience of cranking out a 40-page research project or white paper from a mobile device.

How would a customer service operation fare if representatives were sitting at their desks looking at small-screen mobile devices? Would you want your purchasing people entering purchase order and financial information into mobile phones?

There is the third way -- touchscreen tablet and lightweight, inexpensive netbooks, which are laptops that meet the smartphones halfway.  And yes, you can hook mobile devices to keyboards and even monitors to provide a larger-footprint experience. But then you're essentially back to having a PC.

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney pondered thus question in a Network World article last year. "Smartphones are still content consumption devices, not content creation ones. Every knowledge worker has to do content creation, so you've got to have a desktop or a laptop to do it."

"If you're going to be crunching numbers on an Excel spreadsheet or writing documents all day long, you're not going to want to do that on a BlackBerry," says one user quoted in the Network World article, who relies on a cheap PC to get heavy-lifting work done back at the office.  "But if you're managing people and on the phone a lot, or in sales and going on a quick overnighter to see a client, you could make a good case for traveling light with just a BlackBerry."

Yes, there's no denying that mobile devices are the wave of the future. But we'll still be seeing a lot of "traditional" PCs and laptops in that future as well. PCs and mobile devices will co-exist, and will blend and overlap in form and functionality. It's likely that PCs/laptops will adopt much of the look and feel of mobile devices -- in fact, monitors with touch-screen capabilities are already on the market. And -- very important -- PCs and mobile devices will even run many of the same applications.

In content-rich environments, it doesn't seem feasible that full-screen PCs and laptops will go away anytime soon. For heavy-duty, heads-down work, you need that PC footprint.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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