Death Match: Handset versus PC?
This is the second week in a row that a TWiT podcast has motivated me to blog. At one point in this week’s show the panel started discussing this question: is mobile killing the PC? By and large the TWiTs didn’t think so, and I even sort-of agree with them. Here’s my not-too-brief response to the question:
What’s interesting to me is how these two technology platforms are co-evolving, and what’s unique about each. In my mind the useful distinctions between handsets and PCs are the obvious: interaction mechanics and availability.
By interaction mechanics I mean methods of input and output, and what these methods make feasible or infeasible. For example, any device that you use with one hand or cradled in two can’t have a full-size keyboard. [Yes, there are full-sized bluetooth and laser-projected keyboards for handhelds, but you don't use either with one hand or cradled in two, so I'm not counting them.] Ergonomics and human physiology both conspire against authoring long pieces of textual content using small keyboards.
You could write a 100,000 word novel on your Blackberry, but you had better hope that your insurance pays for treatment of the crippling RSI that will result. Until we have really great voice recognition or some sci-fi-ish mind-machine interface on handsets, we’re stuck with small keyboards, and the relatively short works of authorship (short e-mails, twitters, short blog posts, SMSs, etc.) that are feasible with them.
A similar principle applies to screens. Handsets can’t have the big screens of PCs. Until the magic day when someone figures out how to project high-resolution information from short distances across a typical human’s field of vision, we’re stuck with screens that can fit in your hand / pocket / belt holster / purse. The iPhone screen is probably right at the size limit for handset form factors. Sure, resolution will get better and better over time. But that doesn’t really increase the amount of perceivable information you can put on a small screen, just the quality of how the information is presented.
That said, you can feasibly consume an awful lot of different types of content on a good small screen like the iPhone’s. For most textual content, like web pages, the issue with handset presentation is one of formatting, not of screen size. Formatting is a solvable problem. With video, I find that the iPhone’s screen is plenty big with high enough resolution and refresh rate to prevent serious eyestrain even when watching hour-long content.
There are some forms of content and interaction that do require a big screen, e.g., programming, serious video editing, watching movies with others, etc., where having lots of pixels for displaying content really matters, and that consequently are going to be infeasible to do on handsets in the foreseeable future. All told though, small screens seem to less of a limitation on what can be done with handsets than small keyboards.
Mobile handsets are designed to be…well…mobile. You carry the device around with you all the time. The convenience of this high availability sometimes trumps the convenience of superior interaction mechanics even when you have the choice between the two. For instance, when my wife and I are watching a movie in our living room, both of us have our mobile handsets within reach. We’ll often check our e-mail and make quick responses on our mobiles rather than getting up to go to our desktop Macs, or even to pop open a laptop which may be sitting just as close to us as our mobiles.
This is the really cool thing about mobile handsets. They are communication and content consumption devices that are always on, always connected, and always available. Despite small keyboards and screens, more and more types of communication and content consumption are possible all the time on mobiles. Couple that with the overwhelming convenience of availability, and yes, mobiles are going to steal a huge number of eyeball hours away from PCs. In countries where mobile devices and networks are more sophisticated than in the US–for example, Japan–the trend of spending less time on PCs and more time on mobiles is already noticeable. And the gap is widening rapidly.
I don’t think that this means the death of the PC. In fact, I don’t think that this is an either or scenario.
What I as a consumer want to see is more services like Google Reader, Google Calendar, etc., where I can get at my content on either PC or mobile. The line is already blurring between PC and mobile in terms of both communication and content consumption. My choice between the two in the future will largely be dictated by whichever is most readily at hand. Most of the time that will be my mobile.
I don’t see my mobile becoming the creative instrument that the PC is. For instance, as a programmer and writer, I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to give up my Linux boxes or Macs or my full-sized, ergonomic keyboard in favor of a mobile.
At the end of day (or blog post) though: in the war to capture as much consumer attention as possible, mobile handsets, in my humble opinion, are going to dominate the PC. This sea change is coming soon too, so hold on. It’s going to be an interesting and fun ride.