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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mobile phones as PC replacements? I don't think so...

One of the greatest myths in the mobile industry (and IT industry) is that we are in the "post PC" era. The noise and hype around smartphones and lower tier devices replacing normal computers remains deafening.

(There's also a growing clamour that iPads and other tablets are shaking the PC market to its core, but that's a slightly different issue I'll deal with another day).

I've written about this before, but there's still a ton of ill-informed noise, usually from people who have long held a grudge against Microsoft, and see the rise of the smartphone as a way to realise their wishful thinking. Unfortunately, they let their glee cloud their critical judgement, asserting that a handset can easily replace a notebook, once it's got a TV-out port and a basic OS.

I've covered this issue before, but one new statistic has just helped me crystallise my thinking:

A typical smartphone battery holds 10-20x less energy than a typical laptop battery

In a simple nutshell, that represents the difference between the two worlds. In a computer, that extra power is used to make the screen brighter/larger, and also to run the processor and ancilliaries harder. For all a phone's great power-management tricks on standby (and indeed much-needed cleverness when it's being used as well), the bottom line is that their "ain't no substitute for energy".

Laptop shells are bigger, supporting a larger battery. Not only that, because they are dependent on volume, a 2x increase in each dimension results in an 8x volume and therefore energy storage capacity.

The result: the two devices remain in different universes. Yes, in the big Venn diagram of "use cases", there are a few areas of overlap. I certainly use smartphones *a lot* for certain tasks - but there's no way I'd be writing this blog post on one, with the need for a decent keyboard, and a screen large enough to have open windows from various web pages & background apps.

For those wanting some harder numbers, the key metric is "Watt-Hours", not the more common "mAH" (milliamp-hours) you see on handset websites, because power (watts) = amps x volts, and different devices operate at diferent voltages. Watts = 1 joules [energy] / sec, so a Watt-Hour is a proper measurement of *energy* (3600J to be exact).

Some data points:
Nokia E52 = 5.5 W-H
iPhone 4 = 5.25 W-H
BlackBerry Torch = 4.7 W

MacBook Pro = 77.5 W-H
Dell Latitude = 85 W-H
HP Mini netbook = 66 W-H

EDIT - an Apple iPad has 25 W-H of battery life, hence its position further up the curve. 5x that of a smartphone, but 3x less than a laptop. More of a threat, greater overlap on some use cases, but still in a different world.


Ajit Jaokar said...

Hi Dean, I see your argument but by 'post PC era' - I think most people mean an era where the PC is not dominant. It does not mean that the PC is replaced. Just like we are in a 'post mainframe' era but we still have mainframes. The question you address is of substitution - the real question is that of dominance kind rgds Ajit

Dean Bubley said...

Ajit, my point still stands.

I think the whole "post-PC" label is absolute nonsense, peddled by a broad range of vested interests.

I see no signs whatsoever that the PC's dominance at the centre of computing (with servers, obviously) is being challenged.

In my view, the reason we've seen a clear-out at Nokia is because its executive time believed the nonsense about "mobile computers" in the face of reality.

It's just a shame that Microsoft and the PC manufacturers don't both to ramp up their own marketing machine to counter the hype.

Antoine said...

Power is an argument, but I'd probably frame that argument more toward the latter side of your post where you equate the power requirements to the intended use cases. In many respects, perceptions drive why the use cases exist, and are just enough to throw out the 'post PC' issue which I think is the issue you have more of an issue with.

As for getting tasks done, I'd probably be well qualified to dispute that smartphones and tablets aren't enough as I use them both much more frequently for creation/editing than I do a traditionally held PC (laptop, desktop). Plus, for a post like this, it would have made all kinds of sense to do this on my mobile - there's nothing so complex about writing a post with colored, bloded text that's complex (my leanings to writing HTML and CSS proficently do bias me here).

Nevertheless, the thinking of power density as being an addressible or challengable aspect of mobile versus PC computing is interesting. i wonder what is possible, and what physics laws are being held too tightly toward from making that change faster.

Pat Smellie said...

While power is extremely important. You cannot directly compare the requirements. The larger screen on a laptop requires more power. The rate of increase in performance from battery technology is no match for the advancement we see from semi's, so the Post PC era is several generations down the road because of both silicon and battery technology. You cannot directly compare cell battery requirements against the laptop, because the screen is using a huge percentage of available power. We need enough screen real estate to accomplish the task, so things like the iPad provide a low power solution to a laptop like task. I think when we are looking at 15NM die and we mature voice recognition technology we can create a interface in cell phone form factor which has the power of present day laptops so the "smart phone" with a "Smart Assistant" will eliminate the need for a laptop for a bunch of use cases. When is the difficult question since we need a number of technologies to come together, but by 2015, I think folks who use a keyboard and mouse will be considered old school and touch and voice will become the predominate interface.

Dean Bubley said...

Antoine, Pat

Thanks for your comments.

The issue I see is that PCs are essential for *some* use cases and therefore the majority of people in the developed world will continue to want access to them.

e.g. a keyboard is used for creating long reports, processor for doing heavy-duty tasks like SAP or photoshop or financial trading, developing software & websites, major rework of Facebook pages etc.

Pat - is there a reason why PCs cannot also adopt 15nm technology or more modern batteries? In general, I see no value in a "smart assistant", and negative value in most voice-input technologies apart from a handful of use cases (eg while driving).

Brian S Hall said...

Interesting view. I write about smartphones on my site (but have no vested interest) and believe we are in the 'post PC' era. However, until we have wireless power and/or significantly longer battery life for these devices, they will have a fundamental weakness that PCs/laptops do not.

Adrian Brophy said...

I agree overall with this article, and particularly about the vested interests, but had a personal experience today that showed me abruptly that lines are blurring much more than I had thought.

The difference was thinking to take my iMacs wireless keyboard on the train with me. It's tiny and much lighter than any laptop and importantly works effortlessly over bluetooth with iOS4 devices such as my phone.

Where once I'd be faced with a decision as to whether to respond to an email on a laptop or a mobile depending on how much typing was involved, this solution gave me an option to use the phone (though propping up an iphone isn't easy!) in a laptop context. For simple apps such as email - there more than enough battery and processing power in a smartphone, and the only limiting factor was the ergonomics.

What seems to be happening is that PCs will always have a distinct place, but they do occupy a shriking oval on the Venn diagram reserved for tasks where a lot of computing power is needed along with the ergonomic design and energy supply that permits longer periods of work. For other usage scenarios, other form factors - whether tablets or smartphones will deliver the goods as well or even better and their share will grow correspondingly.