How Smartphones Conquered the Tech World

Wednesday Feb 27th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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Smartphones have been central to technology for years. But now, everything must have explicit support for mobile phones.

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has become the most important technology trade show. And the reason is that smartphones have become the most important technology product.

While attending the show this week, it became obvious to me that even products that are not smartphones must become like smartphones -- or must connect to smartphones -- in order to stay relevant and survive.

I noticed that here at the show, a huge number of iPhone users were using and talking about Mailbox, a new email client currently available only for iPhones. And I've been using it myself.

What's interesting about Mailbox is that it doesn't add any capabilities to email. There's nothing you can do with Mailbox that you can't do with any desktop, tablet or other smartphone client.

What Mailbox represents is the first-ever purely multi-touch interface email client. Rather than being about folders and menus, Mailbox lets you do what would otherwise be multi-step processes with a single swipe in one direction or another.

Many users, including myself, are now choosing to process our email on our iPhones even when we're sitting in front of a full PC.

One by one, applications on touch devices, especially smartphones, are becoming superior in usability to desktop alternatives.

It used to be that smartphones were an important category of technology because everyone has one and because they go with us everywhere.

But now, they're also becoming superior because software designers are figuring out how to really use the multi-touch user interface, which is and should be superior in usability to the old-school PC user interfaces involving mice, keyboards, menus, folders and all the rest.

An early example of this is Apple's own iPhoto for iOS. It's theoretically the iOS version of Apple's iPhoto for OS X. In reality, it works nothing like the desktop version at all. It's better, at least for average users, and that superiority is the result of the multi-touch user interface.

Yesterday, Adobe demonstrated that it, too, understands the power of multi-touch by launching Photoshop Touch for iPhone and Android smartphones. For editing smartphone photos, some photographers will actually prefer this app to the full-sized and over-priced desktop version, which nowadays makes sense only for professionals.

How Smartphones Became the Computer for the Rest of Us

Just as Apple changed its named years ago from Apple Computer, Inc., to Apple, Inc. and changed its business from a mostly PC company to a mostly mobile company, so will the whole PC industry if they want to survive.

The leader in this trend beyond Apple is China's Lenovo. The company says that it's one of the few smartphone makers that's profitable, and analysts expect the company to grow its market share in China this year to surpass Samsung and become the number-one smartphone vendor in China.

You'll recall that Lenovo was a PC nobody until it bought IBM's PC business in 2005. Lenovo was smart enough to get into PCs then and smart enough to focus on smartphones now.

I think this is the route to survival for every company that makes most of its money from PCs -- become a smartphone company or die.

Nowadays, ordinary users don't care that much about high-performance PCs. They’re looking for other factors, such as big screens for desktops or ultra-mobility for laptops.

Sure, PC gaming is on the rise again, and gamers care. A lot. Supergeeks and power users will always care. But ordinary users don't care about PC performance as much as they used to.

Here at Mobile World Congress, the ultra-fast smartphones dominate the conversations. The smartphone is the new PC.

The fast-growing Chinese company Huawei (pronounced wah-way) blew away its Mobile World Congress audience by introducing the Huawei Ascend P2, which it claims is the fastest smartphone ever created.

The Ascend P2 is powered by a quad-core, 1.5GHz processor and LTE Category 4 technology, which can give you up to 150 Mbps downloads.

Another darling of the show is the new HTC One, which that company rolled out with dozens of tethered units for attendees to fondle. Powered by a quad-core, 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, the HTC One is another blistering-fast phone, which is one of its best selling points.

So like the PC industry years ago, the smartphone industry has suddenly become one in which branded processor technologies are major selling points, and benchmark tests become major points on product reviews.

Phones In the Living Room

While smartphones have always been associated with and connected to PCs, they've been AWOL in the world of living room entertainment until very recently.

Suddenly, however, smartphones are the component that really matters.

First, Microsoft announced Xbox SmartGlass, which enables smartphone users to interact with Xbox for games and whatever else they're doing with the Big Screen.

Sony last week unveiled its long-awaited Playstation 4 console, which they said will enable users to control the action or augment game play using their existing smartphone and via a Playstation 4 app.

Earlier this month, one of the original developers of the Xbox and the guy who gave it the Xbox name, Nat Brown, blogged something that may have shocked hardcore gaming fans. He said: "Apple, if it chooses to do so, will simply kill Playstation, Wii-U and Xbox by introducing an open 30%-cut app/game ecosystem for Apple-TV."

It's worth pointing out there that the number one gaming platform in the world by far is Apple's -- namely, the iOS platform, thanks to small, cheap or free apps played by Apple's hundreds of millions of iPhone users.

Apple's CEO Tim Cook recently upgraded Apple TV from a "hobby," as former CEO Steve Jobs called it, to an area of "intense interest" by the company.

Translation: Apple intends to dominate the living room.

And if they do that, they will be sure to bring into existence Nat Brown's dystopian scenario of "simply killing" all the major console gaming systems by opening up a gaming App Store on their TV platform.

One thing is very likely with Apple's system: It will be iPhone centric, enabling gaming apps to use both the iPhone and the TV together for both control and also the social aspect of gaming.

This week, in a move nobody predicted, electronics giant LG announced that it had acquired the rights to the WebOS from HP, which it plans to use as the operating system in smart TV products to hit the market next year.

Just as Google TV is a smart TV platform based on a smartphone operating system (Android), LG's competitor will be based on an alternative smartphone OS. Remember that WebOS was the impressive-but-ill-fated platform for Palm's doomed line of smartphones.

This week at Mobile World Congress, it became plain to see what’s happening in the world of consumer technology. Smartphones have become the center of our world. Smartphones are the new PC. Smartphones must be supported on non-smartphone technology in order to succeed. And even TV sets and gaming systems are becoming giant smartphones, powered by smartphone operating systems and controlled by smartphones.

It’s a smartphone world, and now PCs and TVs and gaming consoles are mere peripheral devices.

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