Monday, November 02, 2009

Mobile Phones are the New Computer

The mobile phone is the new computer. The desktop computer is not going away, but the smartphone market is growing fast. Phones are being used as computers by more people and for more purposes. Just as we still have supercomputers today but most people use desktop computers everyday, soon desktop computers will be relegated to the specialist and elite professional, and most people will use their mobile phones for their computing needs.

Already there are more mobile phones than computers connected to the internet. Smartphones are generally cheaper than computers. With their primary role as communication devices, they are often more useful. The smartphone of today will be the standard phone a few years from now. With profits from applications growing, we’ll see continued subsidies of the hardware and operating systems by manufacturers and carriers, keeping new phones cheap or free.

We’re also seeing a change in how people use computers. More often applications we use are centered around communications (more commonly termed “workflow”) than the more traditional personal computer task of document creation. In the business world, we file expense reports, approve decisions, or comment on proposals. As consumers, we read reviews, send short notes to friends, and share photos. Email is the killer app of the late 20th century, rather than the word processor or spreadsheet.

I’ve never been a gadget geek and have skirted getting into mobile application development before now. The actual engineering challenges of working with native code on a device doesn’t scare me, but just didn’t seem worth it. Developing apps for a phone typically meant that you were working for a carrier, directly or indirectly subjected to the whims of a monstrously large company, and often disconnected from the people actually using the application.

Mobile development also seemed to attract the same style of engineer as game development: interested in the tech for itself, with less interest in the end result, and a feeling that the application is “cool” because it runs on a gadget, independent of its usefulness. Mobile apps weren’t attractive to me as a developer or someone who might use them. I always said that I would start using a PDA when they had the resolution and battery life of paper, and the phone was suited for direct communication with another human being via voice.

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