Computing Convergence in the Wireless World

When Motorola launched the Android-powered Atrix 4G smartphone at CES 2011, it showed a glimpse of the future of mobile phones, mobile computing, and computing in general. For those unfamiliar with the device, it is a handset that provides a high-end Android experience when held in your hand, but once it’s popped in its special dock it turns into a much more PC-like experience complete with desktop, window manager, display, keyboard, and support for desktop version of Firefox complete with Adobe Flash compatibility. While, the first Atrix was not exactly a huge hit, Motorola has continued to work on the handset and the companion Webtop experience. They released an incrementally updated Atrix 2 with a revised docking station later in 2011. Also Motorola has expanded the Webtop functionality to multiple devices in their Verizon Droid and RAZR line ups, released Webtop 2.0 which provides an even better PC experience, and is working on Webtop 3.0 (based on Android 4.0 and without Firefox).

Is Motorola on to something here? Will the future of consumer computing be handheld devices plugged into various shells that merely provide hardware extensions? I believe the answer is definitely yes.

The Growth of Mobile Processing Power
Daul-core CPUs, quad-core CPUs, screaming clock speeds, multiple gigabytes of RAM, blazing GPUs. High-end handsets these days are marvels of engineering shrinking a tremendous amount of computing power into a 5 ounce package. Modern handsets can power nearly all of the average user’s computing needs easily: web browsing, emailing, Facebooking, Tweeting, photo editing, casual gaming. The only outstanding exception to this is dedicated graphics horsepower for non-casual gaming and other tasks requiring the brute horsepower a GPU provides. But mobile GPUs are rapidly accelerating in ability. Nvidia predicts in 2014 mobile graphics will be on par with today’s generation of consoles.

So, with this phenomenal computing power in an itty bitty package, why are consumers going to pay for an expensive phone, an expensive tablet, an expensive laptop, and an expensive desktop? They won’t and aren’t. Consumers are already ditching desktops in favor of laptops in droves. Many consumers are already ditching laptops in favor of tablets. And soon, I predict, consumers will be ditching everything besides their handsets which they will dock into bigger, better displays that have the necessary hardware extensions – wired or not – to use for other purposes: printers, mice, keyboards, discrete graphics, USB ports, etc.

This will be the beginning of the device singularity.

Device Singularity
Device convergence is already happening across multiple OEMs and software platforms:

Microsoft is positioning Windows 8 as a OS suitable for both desktops and tablets. They are also undertaking the huge engineering task of getting Windows 8 to run on ARM-based chips, which is vital for it to be viable in a mobile ecosystem that runs nearly exclusively on power-sipping ARM chips. Of course, Intel wants to change that.

ASUS has the Padfone, which is a surprisingly well-executed attempt at combining all mobile computing together: phone, tablet, laptop. It would not surprise me in the least if the future of consumer computing looked very much like this.

An over-funded Kickstarter project is pitching an elegant way of converting an iPad into something very close to a Macbook Air. If I had an iPad, I’d be backing this project.

Google’s Play
Google’s purchase of Motorola, which is nearly complete, will bring Google a treasure trove of patents but saddled it with a struggling hardware business with thin margins and few options. There’s still some head-scratching going on about whether this was a wise move on Google’s part. While the value of the patent war chest can’t be ignored, I think Google also saw value in having in-house hardware division. It gets them much closer to Making the Whole Widget, which has worked extremely well for Apple, and the Webtop product could not have escaped Google’s attention as this CNET article argues.

The Big G has been trying to get into the desktop OS space with its ChromeOS running on the less than successful Chromebooks. With Webtop, Google has an opportunity to do at least 4 things that may give them a big boost and a fighting chance to greatly advance complete mobile device convergence:

  1. Motorola’s Webtop will provide the hardware arm to work out the critical piece of making the docking station husks that are animated by handsets
  2. Webtop provides a clear path forward and reason to meld Android and ChromeOS (something long rumored). With Webtop Android and ChromeOS running side by side (or maybe even as one), Google will have a credible offering for mobile, tablet, and desktop OS experiences.
  3. Google will leverage the immense popularity of Android to make deep inroads into the desktop space. Imagine if in the next 5 years every Android user can pop their handset into a dock and it instantly becomes a fully functional, cheap, telephony-enabled laptop. After that, why do I need Microsoft? Why do I need Apple?
  4. Google’s extensive suite of cloud-based services and applications put them in a strong position – arguably the best position of all its competitors – to provide the first fully functional, usable, integrated, and completely mobile computing experience. Webtop will be the anchor in the desktop/laptop space. Consumers could go to Google for every single bit of their digital needs: mobile hardware, tablet hardware, desktop hardware, operating systems, applications, games, cloud-storage, music, movies, books, web services, and, soon, even internet service! Put that way, it’s almost scary.

But what about Apple?
Not all are believers of course. Recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook pooh-poohed the idea of tablet and laptop convergence. Personally, I believe his dismissal means almost nothing as Apple historically belittles what its competitors are doing while secretly working on its own version of the product. Let’s count all the ways Apple is already moving towards device convergence:

  1. Steve Jobs announced his belief this is the post-PC era, which begs the question if PCs are dying off what will we be using instead?
  2. Apple has ported virtually all of its creative and productivity apps to iOS
  3. It already sells accessories that turn the iPad into what is functionally a multi-parted netbook
  4. Apple has ported or is porting several key iOS features (or at least the idea of those features) to Mac OS X: App Store, Launchpad, Game Center, Notification Center, Sharing, etc.
  5. Its aggressive push of iCloud and iTunes Match pushes most of the user’s data into the cloud so it can be accessed everywhere and by any device
  6. Dropping “Computer” from the company name back in 2007 was a harbinger of 2012 when Apple makes most of its gobsmacking profits from phones and tablets. Apple is smart. It knows where the future is heading, and it will cannibalize its own business before letting a competitor feast

When the iPad is powerful enough to meet almost all the needs of most consumers (arguably it’s already there) people will stop buying Macbook Airs or Pros and send more and more of their cash to 3rd parties who make accessories that turn their iPads into work stations more suitable for focused, time-consuming tasks. Apple is working hard to have the software ready. The hardware part is more difficult as we can already see making an attractive, elegant, functional, and high quality dock is actually very difficult: Exhibit A.

Impacts for Wireless Carriers
How will device convergence impact wireless carriers? Here are a few thoughts that I hope to explore in a later post:

Wireless providers will become even more powerful gatekeepers of consumer electronics and services. If the primary animating force of consumer computing is the handset a user carriers in his pocket, then wireless providers are going to be the ones selling him that mini-computer. That’s a powerful position to be in.

4G LTE service will become even more vital. As consumers cut cords, become more accustomed to ubiquitous wireless broadband, and grow frustrated with paying for wireless and wired broadband bills, they will increasingly turn to LTE as the solution for all of their connectivity. Suddenly for consumers their device is not only their computer but also their wireless access point, replacing modems and routers.

Following along with the point above, carriers will need to work even harder to not become dumb pipes. Smart network management, monetization, OTT offerings, and personalization all become more vital.

The impact on triple-play and quadruple-play partners could be immense. Extreme device convergence could potentially impact all plays.

Conclusion
Device singularity is still many years out but in my mind is almost certainly going to happen. In the near future your handset will be the ghost in the machine that breathes life into relatively inert and dumb docks as you move about your day. There are still advancements to be made in both software and hardware before it gains widespread consumer acceptance. In fact, it may not even take place until somebody like Apple, despite its reluctance, enters the market and introduces a game changing solution, but the singularity is coming.

And of course device singularity will not be popular with all users. Hardcore gamers, ubernerds, gadget-freaks, creative professionals, and others will balk at condensing all of their computing power into one small device. However, for the majority of users this will be a very appealing option, especially to users in developing markets who don’t have the infrastructure or resources to have a multi-device and fully wired experience.

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 2, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    I am not sure this will be the case.
    Now that we have the “cloud”, our lives are converging around services we assume are available seamlessly anywhere. In such a case, there’s no real need to use a specific device – so now a smartphone or a tablet give me the same stuff I require, without the tablet being reliant or “driven” by my smartphone.

  2. Steve Barnett
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    In my mind, the ubiquity of the cloud is even more reason to think this will happen. Why buy multiple devices especially when all a tablet or laptop really provides is a nicer screen? Users will get a cheaper, more portable device they will always carry with them, and then use that for all computing needs.

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