How many computers do we need?

There was a thought I alluded to in last week’s Tech.pinions podcast I want to expand. It’s the idea we’re now surrounded by many different computers in a variety of form factors and that one of the biggest questions for our industry is just how many of these computers each individual needs for their personal and business needs.

When the word computer was synonymous with the desktop PC, the answer was plainly either one or zero for the vast majority of people. Either you needed a computer or you didn’t. If you did, it likely sat on the desk at work or on a table at home if you needed it for personal reasons. Very few people would have needed more than one.

However, when the laptop came along there was suddenly a reason for at least some people to have more than one computer for the same purpose. One – the desktop – stayed on the desk while the other traveled with the user. This entailed some compromises – files often had to be manually transferred to the laptop computer using a floppy disk or a USB drive or similar. Over time, the increasing power of laptops allowed at least some users to forgo the desktop entirely, perhaps making use of a docking station when in the office or at home to extend the functionality of the laptop. As such, the laptop went from being a secondary device to being a primary device or even the only computer used for work or personal needs.

When the smartphone first came along, it took on a similar role to the laptop — as a secondary computer in our lives (at best). Early smartphones were very limited-use computers, effective only for basic emails and such, but able to replace very few, if any, functions of the laptop. As smartphones have evolved however, they have become more and more pocket computers, able to replicate, at least in basic form, many of the functions of a laptop. They began as secondary devices but, once again, as they’ve gained in power and functionality, they’ve become for many of us the primary computers in our lives, going with us everywhere, the first ones we turn to for many tasks, with laptops performing a backup function.

In 2010, Apple reinvented the tablet with the iPad and introduced yet another computer into this mix. People who already used a smartphone and laptop had another computer to use, optimized for certain tasks and scenarios, offering a larger screen than the smartphone, sharing many of its benefits, such as portability, instant on nature, and a touch-based operating system. This was arguably the first time that ordinary people were in the position of owning three different computers for personal use. In some cases, people resolved this situation by adopting the tablet as the primary computing device, effectively replacing a laptop much as the laptop once replaced the desktop.

I believe this instinct of trying to get back down to two computers for personal use is a powerful one, both for complexity and budgetary reasons. Many people and businesses struggle to justify three separate device purchases to accomplish essentially the same tasks. Though some resolve this tension by opting for a tablet over a laptop, others will resolve it the other way, falling back on the more powerful laptop and slowly abandoning their tablets. I see the last few years as a period of experimentation among many users as they test whether the tablet fits into their lives as a primary device, a secondary device, or not at all. The rise of two-in-ones and the Microsoft Surface are attempts to help users resolve this tension by finding a compromise between the two form factors, though these devices inevitably entail compromises.

Into this mix comes the “phablet” – the large screened smartphone which approaches the unofficial dividing line between smartphones and tablets at 5.5 inches or more. In some cases, users are resolving the tension by increasing the size of the smartphone they carry allowing the smartphone to absorb some tablet tasks, while others fall to the laptop, leaving the tablet without a role. While I think the threat of phablets to tablets can be overblown, I do think it’s real, and Apple’s larger iPhones in particular represent a particular threat to the iPad.

All of which makes next week’s Apple event particularly interesting. At this point in its history, Apple has to decide what the proper role of the iPad is in a multi-computer world, especially in the context of its recent iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launches. How important is it Apple provide compelling new reasons for people to choose the iPad in addition to the iPhone and Mac lines? Last year’s new iPad hardware was a significant step forward in the case of the Air, which is markedly lighter and thinner than the previous versions. Yet it provided no huge bump in sales. I’ve talked about the iPad replacement cycle before and I believe this may still be part of the reason for the current lull in iPad sales with a big upgrade cycle to come. I also believe Apple is slowly reducing the reasons to buy an iPad with enhancements to both the iPhone and Mac lines.

The question at this point is whether the iPad in fact occupies a position much like the iPod — extremely compelling for a period of time, but destined to be replaced at some point by other devices, like the iPod by the iPhone. This feels odd because of the order of their launches (though we should note that work on the iPad began before work on the iPhone). But as Apple has released increasingly personal devices, people have slowly shifted their attention towards the newer, more personal even if the iPad’s place in the order of launches is a little out of position. If iPhones cannibalize iPads, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Apple, which makes more money from the former (both revenue per device and margins), except perhaps it reinforces the company’s reliance on a single line of devices for much of its growth, revenue and profit. But at some point in the next few years, Apple may have to decide how to actively foster that cannibalization.

We come, lastly, to the Apple Watch, which is the latest in Apple’s series of increasingly personal and “intimate” computers (to use Apple’s terminology):

Increasingly mobile and personal computers

The Apple Watch isn’t quite like any other smartwatch out there, not just because of the somewhat unique fashion angle, but also because it clearly sets out its stall as a computer in its own right, with huge potential beyond its current capability in future versions. Over time, I think it’s entirely possible the Apple Watch could become the primary computer in people’s lives just as the laptop and smartphone have been before. We’re some time from that eventuality, just as the original smartphones weren’t ready to replace laptops. But I can easily foresee this future coming in the next few years. This seems especially plausible when you bear in mind the fragmentation between inputs, outputs and processors I’ve talked about previously, in which small devices such as the Apple Watch might use external processing power, inputs and outputs to achieve their full functionality.

However, it raises the question yet again of, how many computers we need? We used to think the answer was either one or zero, whereas now the answer seems for many people to be closer to two, while for others it’s three. With watches like the Apple Watch coming on the market, some may start using as many as four. But over time, it’s likely the inevitable tension that arises from using multiple computing devices will kick in again and people will find themselves trying to eliminate at least some of those they use to focus on just a couple. It will be very interesting to see which they choose.

Published by

Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

58 thoughts on “How many computers do we need?”

  1. Though I didn’t like it at the time, more and more, Bill Joy’s comment that “The network is the computer” is coming to fruition.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing. Each device is just a way to access the computer depending on your situation or location.


      1. Replace “computer” with “hive” in above post. Scary thing is that it doesn’t sound that outlandish, preposterous, or hyperbolical.

  2. The real issue for me, is peak battery charging. I have phone,tablet,gps,MP3 player,e-reader,digital camera all as discrete devices with batteries that need charging. Though some are getting a lot less use these days (I think my e-reader is going to die from uncharged battery) because of overlapping capability.

    Devices that stay plugged in like my PC really don’t contribute to the problem, but I need less chargeable gadgets…

    1. ” I have phone,tablet,gps,MP3 player,e-reader,digital camera all as discrete devices with batteries that need charging.” For most people, that would be a phone and a tablet, or, at most, a phone, tablet, and e-reader. Unless you are a pro photographer, separate cameras are becoming harder and harder to justify. Separate MP3 players are going extinct. Ditto separate GPS, unless it’s permanently mounted on your car’s dashboard, in which case it’s plugged into the (increasingly misnamed) “cigarette lighter” and never needs charging.

    2. We’re all waiting for that breakthrough in battery technology that always seems to be just around the corner. Device up time is the big immovable obstacle in mobile computing. It’s so big and immovable, most people think of it as a permanent part of the landscape.

  3. In the old days, silicon was a limited resource and automatic network syncing was unheard of. There were serious downsides to having more than one computer. Today those downsides no longer exist, and aside from financial issues, the positives of having multiple computing devices outweighs the negatives. As long as each device fills a separate niche, I see no limit to the number of devices that it would be useful to own.

    For us, at the moment, the best formula has worked out to a desktop/laptop for serious typing, a tablet for lounging around/gaming, and a phone for taking pictures and for phone-only apps.

    The beauty of the slowdown of moore’s law and the way silicon has far outpaced the needs of almost all programs (other than games) is that the financial issue largely goes away. Especially with modern external storage, unless your computing needs change (ie, you start making home videos), there is seldom any need to buy a new device before the old one breaks. Which opens up room in the budget for more gadgets.

    1. ETA: Jan said “struggle to justify three separate device purchases to accomplish essentially the same tasks.”

      But they aren’t the same tasks, at least not for most people. let me unpack what I meant when I said “fills a separate niche”:

      Phones exist to eat up other portable devices, to become the only device you need to have with you in your pocket where-ever you go. The phone app ecosystem is really just an outgrowth of this. Lap/Desk computers
      exist to provide big screens, full keyboards huge amounts of storage and
      computing power, and the ability to edit long disqus comments (seriously, WTF disqus, get with the program).

      Tablets are more difficult to explain because they are a completely new type of
      device that doesn’t fit into any of the old models. They exist to provide a completely different form factor and UI than a laptop, enabling completely different use cases. It’s a lot more fun to play games on a touchscreen device than on a laptop. It’s a lot more fun to read books or the internet on a tablet than on a laptop. (insert obligatory mention of content creation on tablets here, apps for musicians and artists that leverage the touchscreen and form factor in ways a laptop is incapable of doing). And a tablet enables apps that you can use while walking around, for field workers and other people who spend the day on their feet. All of these tablet use cases are impossible on a laptop, with its heavy weight and clunky keyboard, and equally impossible on the tiny screen of a phone (phablets might eat some of tablet use cases, but then you’ve sacrificed the ability to easily pocket/manipulate your phone).

  4. Maybe it helps to think in dollars worth of computers owned. I remember purchasing a desktop back in the late 80s for $3500, that’s in 1980s dollars. $3500 these days buys you a lot of computer. Enough for a laptop, tablet and smart phone actually. (If you don’t limit yourself to Apple products)

    1. $3500 will buy you an iMac (Lower end), AppleTV, iPhone 6, iPad and probably the low end Apple Watch. ($1600, $100, $700, $700, $350). That’s a lot of computers!

      1. Swap out the iMac for a mini and an inexpensive monitor if you need one, and you’ve got some left over for a router and NAS.

  5. Every person will need to decide for themselves based on what they use and what they like. The more options there are, the better. Personally, I still use a MacBook for most of my stuff (I like to joke that I could use it like a giant flip phone if I wanted to). I also really like the iPad Mini. A lot of people don’t need the laptop, an iPad and a watch, or a phone and a watch is would be perfect for them.

  6. Ain’t the computers we buy that has me wondering; it’s the sensory/server network around us. Imagine an iBeacon announcing to my watch that I look a bit peaked and a doctor showing up within a minute. OK a robodoc.

  7. Or maybe the question that is different today, how many things can we use a computer for (more than before)?


  8. You forgot the potential for smart large screen TVs. They really need to become full computers.

    Whether the smarts are built in, or provided by an Apple TV type box, consumers could use their TVs more for web browsing, apps, games, and communicating.

    I would love to use my wall TV as a video connection with my long distance girlfriend and other friends and family. It would be like hanging out in the same room. I think a room view would be more comfortable than having to constantly aim smartphones at our faces while we talk.

    For business, it would be great to easily broadcast to large screens at colleagues homes and businesses whatever I was doing on my iPad or Mac.

  9. My plan is an iPhone 6P to replace my current phone and my iPad Mini. Gets me thinking: Apple knows its big phone will affect tablet sales. And it couldn’t care less; its tablets and tiny tablets, iPod Touches, have always been crippled devices, missing basic network, communication, and navigation features. Makes sense that Apple wants to move us all along to full fledged devices, with all its goodies, leading to our bonding with Apple services, current and future.

  10. I don’t think the Apple Watch will replace our IPhone any time soon because of many factor such as screen limitation, Battery, lack of Camera, ability to edit document, watching video, video game etc..

    unless it come with Holographic projection

  11. The iPhone can’t replace my iPad because the battery isn’t good enough. The small screen size is a pretty serious limitation too. The iPad is my main, at home entertainment device. I think only those on a pretty limited budget will see even a 5.5″ iPhone as a replacement for a tablet. Don’t forget, iPads are near the iPod price range. iPhone first. Laptop next for anyone with significant work requirements for a computer. Tablet next. I’m not sure yet how the watch fits in.

    1. In my situation… I had a 5s & iPad Air and it was a useful set up. I’ll browse the web and use various entertainment content on the iPad and I’ll leave communication purposes for the iPhone. Also have a Mac, but that’s beside the point.

      But when Apple announced the 6 Plus… I immediately thought to myself of using the 6 Plus as my only portable device. And I gave up the 5s & iPad Air for the 6 Plus and limited budget wasn’t the reason, I just felt it being convenient..having primarily one device.

      Although it’s nice to have a phone & tablet, but for me personally having a Mac & 6 Plus serves me perfectly.

      1. The problem with that is that I don’t think I would be happy carrying around a phone the size of the 6+. I think my iPhone 6 is already too big to be used comfortably in some situations. Larger is unacceptable to me.

        My laptop is work pretty much exclusively. The iPad is leisure. And the iPhone straddles between both. I can easily live without the iPad but I wouldn’t prefer to.

  12. “I believe this instinct of trying to get back down to two computers for personal use is a powerful one, both for complexity and budgetary reasons.” – Jan

    I disagree. It’s just a question of cost and convenience. As the cost goes down and as exchanging information between devices becomes more seamless, we’ll have more devices.

    To start out with there is only one of anything. There was the family radio (people used to gather around it at night, and the family car and the family TV, etc. As price came down, people bought more than one of each and then began to buy them in different sizes and shapes to fit their different needs. Just as one example, when I was a kid, my cousins had three TV sets. THREE! We thought they were nuts. What would you do with three TV sets?

    Times change.

    In the future, we’ll have a watch and we’ll have a phone and maybe or maybe not we’ll have a tablet and maybe or maybe not we’ll have a notebook etc. But the number of devices is going to grow, not shrink. It happens ever time.

  13. The answer is 42, but what is the question ? Are we counting sensors with barely enough computer in them to pass their data on ? My washing machine ? My smoke alarm and surveillance camera ? Chromecasts ?
    Classic computers, I need a server, a desktop, a laptop, a tablet and a phone. I actually have 2 of most of these because I like to tinker. Most people around me would need the same 5, but they’re sadly not aware of it and go without backups, overpay for streaming when they should buy CDs/DVDs…, stretching a laptop for desktop use (either by getting a huge, unwieldy one, or by running on crimped hardware at their desk).
    I also have desktop Android PCs, because these are the cheapest gaming consoles one can have, and I don’t game that much, and kids like any games.. actually vintage games have a weird popularity.

  14. Above a certain number of screens, you’re probably looking at enthusiasts who’ll find reasons to justify them all, and who spend time making sure they’re synched. For most consumers who aren’t tech nerds, simpler is better, and fewer devices make life simpler.

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