When Will Smart Phones Overtake Laptops?

Wednesday Feb 20th 2008 by Rob Enderle
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The market is just starting to explore cell phone accessories that bridge the gap between the small phones we want and the email and text creation experience we need.

I’ve been taking some long hard looks at the next generation laptops from Apple, Lenovo, and Toshiba. The Toshiba R500 was an amazing product, very light, very portable but also prohibitively expensive. The Apple Air was more attractively priced but came with some severe limitations. And the latest, the ThinkPad X300 from Lenovo, appeared to be “just right,” in terms of feature mix particularly for a corporate market. But with the iPhone winning the Datamation Product of the Year, you have to wonder when we’ll have true convergence.

Back in the early 1970s when the cell phone was born they weighed nearly two pounds, and cost in today’s dollars over $17K (using this inflation calculating tool). And still three million folks bought them. Kind of puts the whole iPhone sales number thing in perspective, doesn’t it?

These first cell phones didn’t do data at all, had horrid connectivity, and seemed to come from the “bricks are attractive” school of industrial design. Using VOIP, the latest and most advanced of the new laptops, the X300, is actually a better phone than this early cell phone, it costs 1/5th as much, is a full-fledged laptop – and is one hell of a lot more attractive.

Of course, it isn’t like cell phones haven’t evolved as well. The iPhone is 1/30th the price, can do an amazing number of the things the ThinkPad can do, and fits in your shirt pocket. But you still can’t live off of it, or off of its more corporate-based competitor the Blackberry.

Trying too Hard to Make One Device

Many of us, and particularly me, tend to be gadget freaks. We really like the thing that seems to do everything from cleaning floors to making Julianne Fries, even though we probably know it won’t do either of those things particularly well.

The Swiss Army knife is the perfect example of something that does a lot of things marginally (and it might be the reason why we don’t have that many multi-function products). Cloths Washer/Dryer combinations generally sucked, Toaster Ovens weren’t great toasters or ovens (but many people bought them regardless), Boat/Cars tended to sink and crash, and Car/Planes have been measured in the reduced life expectance of their drivers/fliers.

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In the end, we want a phone that is small and portable so that it goes wherever we go and we don’t have to lug a big piece of hardware. On the other hand, if we are typing or browsing the web we need a keyboard that allows us to type comfortably. A lot of the focus, until recently, was to build these ultra-light laptops with screens approaching 10 inches, and smart phones like the one I use (the HTC Advantage) have been starting to drift upwards of 5” and trending toward the size of that original bulky Cell phone. Should you answer the phone too quickly you are liable to knock yourself out given the size and weight of this puppy (actually you use a wireless headset, but you get my point).

In addition, while the iPhone is a cool phone and has a great browser, it sucks – and I mean really sucks – for email and texting. But, should you put a keyboard on it, it will get much heavier and be something in line with the HTC Tilt, which while more practical, isn’t as attractive as the iPhone. (But I know a number of folks who prefer it because they can get their company to pay for it and it does email vastly better).

No, the best near-term attempt at an all-in-one device will likely be the HTC Shift, kind of a mini-tablet. But its phone capability is iffy and we’re back to a device that may be too small and too large.

(I’ll provide a full review later in the year when this product comes out.)

The Right Solution May Be A Pared Set of Devices

Now the biggest problem, as I see it, in having a smart phone and a laptop both connected to wide area wireless is you have to pay for two expensive data plans and the products don’t talk to each other.

But if were you to take a product like an iPhone and merge it with a product like the Apple Air the combination would be fully connected and also provide for the portability you want. The full functionality would be very compelling.

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The only company that looked into doing this was Flybook and surveys they did seemed to favor this paired cell phone-laptop idea. But they never, to my knowledge, were able to figure out how to bring it to market.

Palm appeared close with the Folio but that offering was too limited and, for what it was, too expensive and it was stillborn. More recently, a company called Celio has brought out the Redfly which looks promising and HP is rumored to have something coming may be even better still.

What the market is just starting to explore is a cell phone accessory that can bridge the gap between the small cell phones we want, and the email and text creation experience we need.

The Rebirth of the Thin-Client

Remember the promise of Thin Client computing? This is the idea originally proposed over a decade ago as the way to turn the PC experience into more of a telephone appliance experience.

The problem was that the PC appliance experience not only turned out to be relatively expensive but it truly sucked. In addition, to get it to work you had to be connected and living off a 2 or 2.5 G wireless connection or a thin client device would be hell on earth.

But with 3G the data rates aren’t that bad and here has been a lot of work done to get the “sucked” out of both the wired and wireless experience. This makes HP’s acquisition of Neoware all the more interesting as that company was the first to do a Thin Client laptop computer.

In any case, I think we are seeing the rebirth of the Thin Client as a mobile accessory. It may take a while to get the mix right but I’m feeling change in the wind and change can be a good thing.

In the end I think we are talking a new kind of convergence, not into a single device, but a group of cell phone accessories which allow us to effectively have the best of the Cell Phone and Laptop words in a more secure and still portable always-connected laptop-like accessory.

All I can think is the related Acronym is going to be a bitch.

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