I have been following personal computing since the 1970s (yes, I am ancient). I was introduced to computing categories in the following order:
— First, there was the Desktop. The original Desktops were text input only. Then monitors were added. Then mouse input was added, which allowed Desktop computers to be user by a whole new class of users.
— Next there was the Notebook, which broke from the Desktop only in form factor. The Notebook made the Desktop transportable.
— Then there was the modern Smartphone, which broke from the Desktop and the Notebook both in form factor and in user input. While the form factor of the Notebook made it transportable, the form factor of the modern Smartphone made it mobile, pocketable and, with cellular and wifi connectivity, always connected to the internet. While input via a mouse was the preferred input metaphor for the Desktop and the Notebook, touch became the preferred input metaphor of the Smartphone.
— Then Steve Jobs introduced the modern Tablet and asked if there was room for a third category of personal computing device between the Notebook and the Phone. Note he did not identify the Desktop and the Notebook as different categories, which was probably correct. The Desktop and the Notebook are very similar to one another, while the gap then existing between the Notebook and the Smartphone was, and is, great. Steve Jobs was asking whether there was room in that gap for yet another category (the Tablet) and some are still asking that question today.
— Now, we see wearables as a potentially new computing category.
In addition to dividing personal computers by category — Desktop, Notebook, Tablet, Smartphone and Wearable — I have also always been careful to divide personal computers by user input.
While the Desktop and the Notebook use a mouse and a touchpad to manipulate a cursor, the Smartphone and the Tablet use the finger as the input device. Touch input is so different from cursor input, it required a radical re-writing of the computing operating system. Some, to this day, still do not recognize how very different — and how very incompatible — the mouse metaphor and the finger metaphor user inputs are.
Distinguishing between user inputs caused me to draw a bright line between Desktops/Notebooks that use cursor input and Tablets/Smartphone that use finger input.
Please pardon me for being late to the party, but I think I’ve been looking at personal computing all wrong. Because I divided personal computing by categories and because I divided personal computing by user input, I failed to see that what is really happening here is personal computing has divided into two camps: Smartphones…and everything else.
Smartphones Are The New PC
I’ve known for a while the Smartphone was a Super Computer in our Pocket and it is outselling other personal computing devices by more than 2 to 1.
However, I’ve never really given the Smartphone its due. I’ve always seen the Smartphone as being at the bottom of the personal computing pyramid, with Desktops at the top. Ben Bajarin says this is because we, who have grown up with personal computing, have a PC bias, and he is right. For most of those who did not grow up with desktops and notebooks, those devices are totally irrelevant. Old-timers like me find ourselves debating silly questions, like whether the tablet might be capable of replacing the Notebook when, in fact, the phone is more than capable of replacing the Notebook for many.
The Smartphone Is A Supercomputer In Our Pocket
For those in the West, the Smartphone combines many devices into one and for those who have never previously had access to computers, it gives them access to a plethora of devices and services they never had access to before.
The Smartphone puts previously unimaginable computing power at the service of the masses. While the richest nations benefit from the Smartphone, those who inhabit the poorest nations benefit most. Smartphones act as the great equalizer.
Some even postulate that “Mobile at work is the next Industrial Revolution“.
Running The Numbers
The are 6 billion people on Earth and it is estimated 5 billion of them will own Smartphones. Of that 5 billion, perhaps 2.5 billion will decide to own an additional Tablet, Notebook or Desktop.
You have a small screen in your pocket. You may also have a big one at home. It may be a laptop, desktop, or tablet, or some combination. ~ Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) 12/9/14
What this means is, in the very near future, everyone who has a computing device will have a Smartphone and only a subset of those Smartphone owners will have an additional computing device. And for many, the Smartphone will turn over every 2.5 years while the “additional” computing device may not turn over for 4 or 5 years.
Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Competing Against One Another
While I have always thought of Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops as being separate categories, they really need to be lumped together as “Other”, i.e. other than Smartphones. Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops compete against one another for the coveted role of being our second computing device. Smartphones aren’t in competition with the “other” category. Computer owners may argue over whether to get a Tablet or Notebook or a Desktop but almost no one will think of getting a Tablet or a Notebook or a Desktop in lieu of a phone.
Tablets, Notebooks and Desktops Acting Like One Another
In addition, as different as Tablets and Notebooks and Desktops are, one from the other, they are also very alike in most of their use cases.
Looking at IBM US commerce data. Pretty clear it’s wrong to think of ‘mobile’ as smartphones + tablet. ~ Benedict Evans on Twitter
The Tablet form factor and input are completely different from the Notebook and the Desktop, but the Tablet’s use cases are far closer to the Notebook and the Desktop than they are to the phone.
The more I look at tablets the more I think of them as a continuation of the desktop to laptop transition, rather than part of ‘mobile’. Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) 12/9/14
Perhaps you came to a similar conclusion long ago. For me — and I suspect for many others — this is a whole new way of looking at Tablets, and at personal computers as a whole.
A New Definition Of Mobile
I think we need to redefine what we mean by “mobile”. For me at least, for a device to be categorized as “mobile”, it must be on one’s person or readily accessible at virtually all times and it must be connected to a cellular or WiFi network at virtually all times. Tablets should be removed from the mobile category and thought of, instead, as one of the three flavors of secondary computers available to those who can afford more than one computing device.
I, like many others, care about some computing categories because of what they were rather than because of what they are. Computing has re-aligned itself. It’s past time for my way of thinking about personal computing to do the same.