When HP abandoned their smartphone and tablet business and webOS last August, many in the industry were disappointed in the speed of the Palm acquisition and the quick dismantling of it. Some who consider themselves "business-savvy" said it was the wise approach as it wasn’t core to HP’s corporate mission. They said that smartphones were a distraction to competing with IBM and even Dell. We won’t know until 3-5 years from now whether it was a good decision or not.
I believe though, that just as PC companies fought to stay away from the sub-$1,000 PC market in the 90’s, PC makers who don’t embrace smartphones could be out of the client hardware business in 5 years.
Over the last 20 years, PC hardware and software have done this little dance where one is ahead of the other. New software came out that required better hardware, then the new hardware outpaced the old software and the cycle continued. With the better hardware and software came new features and usage models like multimedia, desktop publishing, 3D games, DVD video, videoconferencing, digital photography, the visual internet, and video editing. Then Microsoft Vista was launched and it seemed no matter how much hardware users threw at it, issues still existed. Microsoft then spent the next few years fixing Vista and launched Windows 7 instead of developing environments for new rich client usage models. Windows 7 actually took less hardware resources than Vista, the first time a Microsoft OS could say this. Microsoft is even publicly communicating that Windows 8 will take less resources than Windows 7. So what happened? Did the industry run out of usage models to consume rich PC cycles? No, there are many usage models that need to be developed that use rich PC clients.
What happened was netbooks, smartphones and tablets. Netbooks threatened Microsoft and forced them to re-configure Windows XP for the the small, cheap laptops. This was in response to the first netbooks, loaded with Linux, getting shipped into Best Buy and direct on the internet. In retrospect this wasn’t a threat to Microsoft, as those netbooks had a reported 50%+ return rate. After netbooks came MIDs and after MIDs failed came touch smartphones and the iPad. Once the iPhone and iPad showed strong sales it was clear that the center of design was moving to mobility even though needs the rich client PC could solve didn’t just go away.
Windows 8 and Rich PC Clients
Windows 8 was clearly architected to provide a tablet alternative to the iPad and stem the flow from Windows to iOS and Android. Most of the work has been to provide a new user and development environment called Metro, WinRT and to enable ARM SOCs. None of these investments does a single thing to propel the traditional rich PC client forward, maybe with the exception of enabling touch on an all-in-one desktop. Without Microsoft making major investments to propel the rich client forward, it won’t move forward even to the dismay of Intel, AMD and Nvidia. I want to be clear that there are still problems that the rich client PC can solve but the software ecosystem and VC investment is enamored primarily with tablet, smartphones and the cloud. Without Microsoft’s investment in rich PC clients, thinner clients like phones and tablets will evolve at a much faster rate than rich PCs.
The Consequences of Not Investing in the Rich PC Client
With the software ecosystem driving "thin" clients at a much faster rate than "rich" clients, the consequences start to emerge. We are seeing them around us every today. Users are spending more time with their tablets and smartphones than they are with their PCs. Savvy users are doing higher-order content creation like photo editing, video editing and even making music with GarageBand. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need their PCs today. They do, because neither smartphones nor tablets can do everything what a PC or Mac can do…. at least today. Display size, input method and lack of software modulraity are the biggest challenges today.
Enter Smartphone Modularity
Today, many users in traditional regions require at least a smartphone and a PC, and a tablet is an adder. Tomorrow, if users can easily attach a keyboard to a tablet via a convertible design, they may not need a PC as we know it today. It’s not a productive discussion if we debate if we call this a PC with a removable display or a tablet with a keyboard. What’s important is that some users won’t need three devices, they’ll just need two.
What about having just one compute device, a smartphone, and the rest of the devices are merely displays or shells? Sounds a bit aggressive but lets peel this back:
- Apps: If you believe that the smartphone ecosystem and apps moves a lot faster than the rich client ecosystem, then that says that thin clients at some point will be able to run the same rich apps as a PC. Then the question becomes, "when".
- OS/Dev Environment: iOS, Windows, and Android are all becoming modular, in that their goal is that you write once and deploy everywhere. Specifically, write once for a dev environment and deploy to a watch, phone, tablet, PC and TV or console.
- Hardware: Fixed function blocks and programmable blocks on tablet and smartphone SOCs are taking over many of the laborious tasks general purpose CPUs once worked on. This is why many smartphones can display a beautiful 1080P video on an HDTV. This is true for video decode, video and photo cleanup, and natural user interfaces too. 3D graphics will continue to be an important subsystem in the SOC block.
- Display: With WiDi, WiFi Direct, and WiFi AC on the mainstream horizon, there’s no reason to think that a user cannot beautifully display their apps from their 4" smartphone display to a 32" high resolution PC display. Today with my iPhone 4s I can display 1024×768 via AirPlay mirroring with a little lag but that’s today via a router and WiFi network. I can connect today via hardwire and it looks really good. In the future, the image and fonts will scale resolutions to the display and the lag will disappear, meaning I won’t even need to physically dock my smartphone. It will all be done wirelessly.
- Peripherals: Already today, depending on the OS, smartphones can accept keyboard, mouse and joystick via Bluetooth, WiFi or USB. The fact that an iPad cannot use a mouse is about marketing and not capability.
Smartphone Modularity a Sure Bet?
As in life, there are no sure things, but the smartphone and cloud ecosystem will be driving toward smartphone modularity to the point where they want you to forget about PCs. Apple, Microsoft, and Google are building scalable operating systems and development environments to support this. Why Microsoft? I believe they see that the future of the client is the smartphone and if they don’t win in smartphones, they could lose the future client. They can’t just abandon PCs today, so they are inching toward that with a scalable Metro-Desktop interface and dev environment. Metro for Windows 8 means for Metro apps not just for the PC, but for the tablet and the Windows smartphone. The big question is, if Microsoft sees the decline of the PC platform in favor of the smartphone, then why aren’t all the Windows PC OEMs seeing this too? One thing I am certain of- the PC industry cannot ignore the smartphone market or they won’t be in the client computing market in the long-term.