By MIKE MALONE AND TOM HAYES
As inflection points go, the Consumer Electronics Show that kicked off yesterday couldn't be sending a clearer signal: The era of the personal computer is drawing to a close. For an industry gathering that once showcased each new generation of desktop and laptop, this year's show is buzzing with every imaginable flavor of tablet, smart phone and mobile appliance. Welcome to the age of mobile computing.
While personal computers are not going to disappear altogether, the trend lines are clear. Gartner, the market research company, predicts that by 2013 the number of smart phones will surpass PCs, 1.82 billion to 1.78 billion. And that's not counting the tablets. Gene Munster, an analyst with the global investment bank Piper Jaffray, estimates that Apple iPad sales were 14.5 million for 2010, with another million tablets sold by competitors. Sarah Rotman Epps at Forrester Research predicts that 82 million Americans will be using tablets by 2015.
Access to the Internet—a key indicator of consumer behavior—by mobile devices also is on a strong uptick. According to a report by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, 59% of Americans accessed the Internet on their phones last year, up from 25% the previous year. The Chinese government recently reported that nearly 300 million Chinese residents now access the Internet via mobile phones. Comcast announced on Wednesday that it would deliver cable television to the iPad and similar Android tablets later this year.
Why have smart phones and tablets succeeded when so many past challengers to the PC have failed? There are several reasons:
• Computing Power. The personal computer has hung on so long because there was no ready alternative. In the last three years, that changed. A new generation of low-power (crucial to long battery life), gigahertz-class processors, combined with high data-transmission speeds (3G, now 4G LTE), high-resolution LCD displays, and nearly a half-million new software applications have suddenly made mobile devices as good as, and in some cases even better than, their PC counterparts.
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Convention attendees use Samsung Galaxy Tab Android tablets at the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show.
.• Cannibalization. The super-integration of the chips that power smart phones has enabled these do-all devices to systematically replace a bevy of other consumer standbys, from photo and video cameras to GPS devices, music players and hand-held videogame players. There is a strong undercurrent to all this: We live in the physical world, where limitations on space and attention perpetually push us toward adopting a few essential and irreplaceable devices in our lives.
• Competition. In the PC industry, competition has largely been reduced to distribution efficiencies and price. But the explosive development of the smart-phone industry is fueled by wide-open rivalry between new product designs and even different visions of what the technology can become.
The arms race between feature-phone product lines adding functionality (Nokia, Motorola, et al.), secure communications devices for professionals (such as RIM's BlackBerry), visual interface-driven multi-purpose devices (Apple's iPhone and iPad), and open-system platforms for multiple hardware developers (Google's Android operating system for tablets and phones) has spurred each player to new heights. In the case of the iPhone, Apple has even created a powerful new business model, consumer-created applications, that has revolutionized the software industry and produced one of the greatest outpourings of private/corporate innovation ever seen.
• Creatives. The truism in tech is that if you want to know what's the hottest industry, watch where the smartest young people are gravitating. Today it's mobile. Millions of bright people, young and not so young, have brought their talents to the mobile world, introducing as many new software programs in a few months as were devised by the computer industry in its first half-century.
• Community. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Qik and Foursquare are making the mobile Internet increasingly more important. It's hard to share life's moments in real time if you must be tied to a desk to communicate.
• The Cloud. Data is migrating from personal computers to a global mesh of shared servers. Storing files and photos online and using Web-based email obviates the need to lug your life around with you. Access to the cloud turns a tablet or smart phone into a virtual supercomputer. Storage demands will rise dramatically, but what was once stored on PCs will be redistributed to disk drives in data servers and home and office media lockers.
• Clients. Tablets and smart phones will soon act as a sort of detachable thin client, delivering a fully operational, virtualized desktop or media center to any screen in the home, office or car. Instead of toting a laptop around, a user can simply plug one of these mobile devices into a docking station and turn any size monitor or tablet into a computer, or a TV into a media center.
• Culture. We want to be mobile, yet we still want to remain connected to the people and things we care about. Nothing currently fulfills that psychic hunger better than a fully-loaded tablet or smart phone in your pocket. There's also an inherent appeal to the culture of these devices: Compare the dry utility of a personality-free PC to the candy-colored array of app icons on the iPad user interface. Which one you would like to wake up to every day?
Mr. Malone is a journalist based in the Silicon Valley. Mr. Hayes is a vice president of Marvell Semiconductor, a manufacturer of high performance processors.
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