Mobile vs. PC, Where We Are and Where We’re Going

Let’s get real for a few minutes.

Believe it or not, PCs serve an important purpose: to get important stuff done. Think of it like semis vs. cars. One one end, you have something that gets you from A to B. On the other end, you have a hulking machine built to haul 10 tons or more. They’re huge, ugly, and burn energy, but they do what a car simply won’t do in its form factor. As much as I would love to have a PC that fit in my pocket, the reality is this won’t be happening for a very long time.

I built my desktop to be a stuff-doing station. It has 16GB of RAM, an 8-core 64-bit processor, a video card that cost an embarrassing amount of money, and banks upon banks of peripherals. Shrinking down this computer anytime soon would be impossible. I mean, the video card alone is probably the size of around 15 iPhones. Multi-terabyte drives are the size of 3 iPhones. Running on ARM could probably shrink down the other internals, but we’ve already got a huge problem for real-world work if we can’t manage to shrink down storage and video cards at a decent price.

What do we need that stuff for? Well, let’s look at the PC audience. Gamers, they need those video cards, maybe even 2 or 3 of them. Video editors, they’ll need a good video card as well, plus RAM and serious HDD space, not to mention speed. 3D artists will need a rendering farm (the cloud won’t do), specialty video cards, and loads of RAM. Graphic designers mostly need adequate screens, but they also need adequate processing and human interfaces. Businesses simply need adequate interfaces and access to Office. Engineers and scientists also need adequate interface and processing power. Desktop computers are massive, hot, and loud, because, well, they’re doing some pretty hardcore stuff. The wonderful thing about the mobile revolution is we no longer need to use them for basic tasks like web surfing and social media, but there are people in this world that need them to do their jobs.

So where do I see things in a few years? I think we’ll still see both devices, and I think we’ll finally see real docking stations, but I don’t think we’ll see actual tablets or smartphones being used as PC replacements. This might possibly work in the business world (and it would be kinda cool and probably seal the deal for BYOD), but smartphones still have a ways to go before you can use them for other purposes. Eventually things will miniaturize, but who knows if they’ll catch up to the raw power, customization, and upgradability of a desktop. We really need a way to dock our devices together in a synergistic (I hate that word, sorry) fashion to share data efficiently, but it seems like a lesson in futility at this point to try and replace the desktop completely, especially if your peripherals will be taking up lots of space anyway. I mean, a tablet won’t be replacing your mouse and keyboard in production (if you disagree, you’ve never designed or developed anything in your life). A tablet won’t replace your dual monitor setup, or your RAID, your subwoofer, etc. so what’s the big deal about having a box to better process your serious work? Desktops aren’t just a box, they’re a human interface and peripheral setup that has stayed consistent for decades for good reason.

So I touched on modularity being absent on smartphones, so let’s talk about the recent social media interest in the Phoneblok concept. I think we’ve all had this idea at some point in time, and it really is a great idea. Obviously there are some engineering challenges with what they portray, but that’s not to say it’s impossible to do. If good ideas were easy to engineer, we’d run out of good ideas. That said, some of this concept is pretty silly. Some thoughts of mine.

– There’s no shame in merging similar functionality. Wifi, Bluetooth, and NFC should probably be merged into one block. I mean seriously, when was the last time your Bluetooth broke on your phone? Heck, when was the last time you used Bluetooth?
– The block and pin idea would probably be flaky. They should have gone a different direction, like PCI card slots… rails and a pinout on the end. This would make engineering much simpler and avoid having the phone burst into 10 pieces if you drop it.
– Simplify. Instead of trying to modularize everything, just have slots for where things will go. Have everything held together by a battery on top, then have 1 CPU slot, 1 big card slot, and 4 small slots. That way you don’t have to tear your hair out second-guessing the user’s configuration. A battery and a CPU have no hardware interface commonalities.
– Don’t pretend this is greener. In all honesty, the Phonebloks idea might actually increase waste, and it will certainly up the manufacturing costs.
– In the real world, most of these things are crammed into a single board or chip. This is how they are able to make the devices so cheap and fast. Separating everything out means a headache for the manufacturers of these chips, and the engineers that have to deal with the interfacing.

I’m willing to bet someone¬†will eventually try to tackle this problem, but it won’t be something from Kickstarter. Just my two cents.

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