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Is the smartphone a computer?

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by John C. Dvorak, 05 Dec 2012Blog
Is the smartphone a computer?

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding former Wall Street analyst Mary Meeker's recent "State of the Internet" report. In it, she outlines the rise and fall of the Wintel duopoly, indicating that it basically peaked during the Windows 98/Windows XP period and is receding to less than 35 per cent market share. In fact, when compared to iOS and Android usage rates, Wintel is at 35 per cent now!

This is somewhat misleading since we are comparing computing per se with smartphones, and we have to ask ourselves if these smartphones are indeed computers. They just so happen to be used for telecommunications, but the desktop computer is also used for telecommunications. The main difference is that one is portable and the other is not. Another difference is power. The handheld smartphone is a gutless wonder compared with the desktop machine, but it can run a browser, some apps, and interactive maps.

This whole discussion is now entering the realm of philosophy. The idea that we'd one day have pocket computers goes back to the 1970s and over the last 20 years, numerous attempts were made to create pure pocket computers without the phone capabilities. The Palm Pilot is the most notable example.

When the first serious smartphones were invented by Microsoft and others, it was obvious that the pocket computer and the smartphone would come together in one package. The real breakthrough came when Apple reimagined the product in a new and compelling way, which became the standard way of seeing the device.

But at what point can we call the modern smartphone a computer? What we have is a touchscreen phone that has cloud access and can run some basic code called "apps." More and more people prefer using the diminutive machine to surf the web via a data plan or local Wi-Fi. It's even become acceptable to have these devices at the dinner table so that someone can consult Wikipedia during a meal without seeming rude. Phone etiquette has gone from "no cell phones" to no problem.

But I digress. The subject at hand is whether these things are computers and whether they are comparable to what I'm typing this column on right now: A powerful multi-core machine with 3TB of storage, 16GB of main memory, and two 27in monitors.

I think the argument can be made that the smartphone is in the same market as the desktop computer if we look at computing history beginning with the SOL-20 and Apple II, continuing with the TRS-80, the Amiga, and everything onward.

One of the most successful machines ever was the TRS-80. There were a slew of competitive machines in this era. We had the Commodore PET, for example, and eventually the Commodore 64. Take any of these early machines and compare them to the modern day smartphone. Is the iPhone more powerful than the Apple II, for example?

Well, it can do a lot more than the Apple II could. The onscreen keyboard is at least as good as the model found on a Commodore PET, as are the games.

From an historical perspective, the comparison is valid; it is only the nomenclature that fools us into thinking otherwise. If the smartphone was re-branded as a pocket computer with calling capabilities, the comparison would be easier to make.

Slide 24 of 88 in Meeker's report makes it apparent that the smart move for Google, in particular, would be to create a desktop computer OS that pushes Microsoft out of the picture completely.

Apple has considered pushing iOS onto its Mac line, but that's similar to Microsoft's decision to turn Windows 8 into a giant smartphone OS running on a desktop. It doesn't work. The Google Android code, however, might be more adaptable and practical.

We'll have to see how all this pans out. Whatever the case, it's apparent that things are changing. But take note on Meeker's chart: If things are reversing for Microsoft, will the right side of the chart eventually reflect the left side? That will mean more options than just iOS and Android. Perhaps we have no idea of what's to come.

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