Man With a Smartphone

on June 11, 2014

I came across a tremendous talk by Steve Jobs on how computers are like “bicycles for the mind”. In this short video, he outlines a report from Scientific American that tested the efficiency of locomotion of different species. Humans didn’t fare well as energy efficient travellers, he pointed out, until Scientific American tested a man with a bike.

As it turned out, a man with a bicycle was the most efficient when it came to locomotion. Jobs’ point was humans are tool builders. The bike as a tool empowered man to be the most efficient traveler. This was how Steve Jobs envisioned computers. Computers are tools. Yet for most of Jobs’ career he made computers, and software to run on those computers, that were stationary or designed to be used while sitting. Perhaps you have seen this great illustration of the PC era.


Apple and Microsoft did important work in bringing the computer from the closet to the desk. However, the era we are in is the one where the computer has moved from the desk to our pocket, allowing humans to take computing into the world and be unchained from their desks and sitting positions. To reap the full benefits of computing, we can now move out into the world as it no longer requires us to sit to compute.

As I watch that video of Steve Jobs talking about the bicycle and locomotion, I think about how we are moving ahead with mobile computing with the smartphone as the ultimate tool. Steve Jobs’ vision of the computer as the bicycle for the mind I feel is fully imagined in mobile computing via handheld devices.

Humans desire to be mobile. Remember when you first learned to ride a bike or got your license to drive a car or could go take public transportation on your own? Did you want to just stay at home or did you want to go out into the world? The smartphone is, for now, the manifestation of all of computing’s visions as a tool but now in handheld form.

And now thanks to Moore’s law, we have advanced computing into a handheld form so billions of people will get their first computer. It may not look like yours or my first computer but this device will radically change the life of its owner.

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 2.17.01 PM

If you see this slide (which I discussed at the Post Modern Computing Summit last week) and think it is an unfair comparison, then you have already missed the bigger point. Moving computing from the desk to the hand is what enabled our market to go from millions of computers shipped each year to billions of computers shipped each year. Mobile computing is on the cusp of and will be shortly, the primary–and in many case only–computing mechanism for the masses.

Man has created tools to help make humanity more efficient. Computers are a tool. Handheld computers are a tool. We are just scratching the surface of how efficient a tool a handheld computer will make us as we unleash computers from their fixed position. The key to this era lies with those who make the tools — the hardware, the software, and the connected services.

This is what makes an event like WWDC and Google I/O so important. In this excellent post by Horace Dediu, he points out how Apple gave the builders tools to make the new mobile world. How Horace explains it is, I think, the best way to understand what is being built around mobile computing. We are empowering the architects, the builders, to create the mobile computing era. The closet and desktop eras of computing will look antiquated compared to where we are headed.

In the not-too-distant future we will look back and find the arguments we had about what is and isn’t a PC and whether we can do “real work” or be efficient with a device like a tablet or smartphone and remember how silly we were. Personal computing inherently wants to be mobile because humanity wants to be mobile. The era ahead will increasingly see the most innovation around mobile. The mobile era is exponentially larger than the desktop PC era. Ultimately, our handheld devices will be tied to our identity, our ultimate digital assistant, and perhaps one of the most powerful tools created by man for man.