Ask just about any analyst in the IT industry, and they’ll tell you that the desktop computer has a dubious future, aside from high-end engineering, manufacturing, and intense gaming applications. Mobile computers like smartphones and tablets are selling are record paces compared to traditional (i.e. big, heavy, wired) stationary machines. Even laptops and netbooks are feeling the crunch of being overtaken by more lighter, more portable devices.
So how long does the desktop have left to live? Well, that’s a great question, and of particular interest to the world’s long-reigning champion of desktop systems, Microsoft. With instant power on/power off convenience, a myriad of wireless connection methods, and built-in gadgetry like phone, GPS, and cameras, today’s mobile platforms already possess far more built-in hardware capabilities. And mobile platforms are just getting started, compared with the tired, aged, nearly 20-something year-old technology of PC.
What’s left? What exactly can a desktop do that a mobile device can’t? Some may defer simply to computing horsepower. Being a stationary object, a desktop can naturally support more CPU speed, more RAM, more video processing and peripheral connections. This is true, but we all know that history has shown that this is only a matter of time. Within 10 years, a handheld computer will likely be able to outperform some of the best desktop models available today.
Even so, what more power does the typical computer user really need? Real time video streaming, which once was the holy grail of good PC performance, is now possible on just about any mobile device. I can watch a movie streamed from Netflix through a 3G connection on my iPhone. I can handle email messages, word processing and spreadsheet documents all from my handheld without concern about latency of the device’s computing speed.
Therefore whenever possible, like many other people, I use my smartphone for my computer needs. It’s usually nearby, it’s always on, and it’s built to navigate efficiently. So what task makes me take pause and stop to say “I’ll wait until I get to a desktop” to get it done?
That pause serves to answer to my question “What exactly can a desktop do that a mobile device can’t?” The answer is quite simple and may surprise many people.
Smartphones and tablets are built to consume and to connect, but not to create. They’re great for looking up information, viewing pictures and watching videos, playing games, and communicating with people. They’re terrible to create anything of significance. When I need to write a lengthy email, draw a picture, or use multiple programs and data sources to create a beautiful content-rich document, I go to a desktop.
So exactly why are desktops better to create with than mobile devices? The answer points back to an underappreciated but revolutionary invention from the early 1980s… our little friend, the computer mouse. The mouse gave users a precise tool to navigate through a graphical user interface. With a mouse we can select and click upon a single pixel on our display. On today’s mobile devices, we use our fingers, and mine are pretty fat. Of course most manufacturers offer an optional stylus accessory, but the current (relatively) enormous input field resolution of most mobile devices reduce our ability to take notes and draw pictures to the quality of finger-painting at best. The simple ability to take legible, hand-written notes is the killer app of the mobile device that is shockingly missing from the leading platforms.
Of course let us not forget the mouse’s input counterpart, the keyboard. Even today’s fastest mobile input methods produce record breakers in the 60 words-per-minute range, whereas the best typists using regular computer keyboard can reach top speeds doubling that and beyond.
To sum it all up – mobile device manufacturers take heed! Work diligently on reducing the input field resolution of your devices to permit the effective use of styluses and their precision down to the single pixel. Then perfect handwriting recognition and its automatic conversion to text data.
And then we, as mobile software developers, can write apps that allow people to be as creative with their mobile devices as they are with their desktops, and we can forever unchain them from their wiry tethers.