Why your smartphone is soon becoming the only computer you’ll ever need

The smartphone is embracing a new role in our lives, much like thick
laptops back in the early 2000s that transition into thin, sexy ultrabooks like 
the new MacBook or the Dell XPS 13.

As we move towards the next technology platform of augmented/virtual reality, this begs a question on how we’re going to be using or interpreting the complementary products/previous technology platforms that we current have today, and we’re going to focus specifically on smartphones in this article.

The smartphone has come a long way since the days when Steve Jobs took the stage at Moscone Center to introduce the first generation iPhone. Apple envisioned how we would interact with our phones, and since then, we’re accustomed to booking our flights, hailing an Uber and choosing our love partner (Tinder) on this tiny yet portable device that fit snugly in our pockets.

Steve Jobs introducing the first iPhone
But why do we still carry iPads or laptops to work anyway?

The argument goes that laptops are still more powerful and productive to answer emails and catch up on Slack conversations. Smartphones are great for doing these tasks on the go, but the scope of what can actually be done is very limited. The interesting question here is: Is this statement still true today? Let’s explore this together.

Are We There Yet?

Apple’s recent announcement of the iPhone 7 has set the tone for a new era of mobile computing by giving us clock speeds that rival a 2012 MacBook Pro. Similar advancements were also visible in the Android camp, most notably, Google Pixel. Putting the number of cores aside, this is a significant jump in hardware innovation that bring together even more possibilities that are still largely untapped in the smartphone era. The Pixel now ships with 4GB of RAM, that was still an upgrade option for laptops a few years ago!

How often does the average user run CPU/graphics intensive tasks such as photo/video editing, host a massively popular social networking site or play graphics-intensive video games? If you asked me the same question 10 years ago, I would have thought that was sarcasm, cause there’s wasn’t any way smartphones back in those days were capable of even opening Microsoft Office! We not only have Office on iOS/Android today, but it can now support games like the legacy GTA game series without breaking a sweat. Hmm, so you may be wondering: “What about power users? They still need high performance machines. This wouldn’t work well for them!”

Addressing the Power + Screen Real State Problems

As we try to explore the feasibility of this smartphone only world, we need to tackle 2 more major problems: a lack of a lack of screen real estate and computing power. I’ll address screen real estate later in the discussion, but let’s show some love for our power users first.

As for power users like graphic designers or game engineers, a smartphone only world would be disastrous because it remains questionable if smartphone technology is ever going to be able to satisfy the demand for intense graphics. You can plot a graph of smartphone vs a gaming computer’ performance over the next decade, and still you’ll see the smartphone having at least a significant offset away from bigger, monster machines.

Hardware manufacturers did come up with innovative solutions such as external, complementary hardware so we don’t sacrifice too much on portability. We’ve seen hardware manufacturers coming up with external GPU concepts like the Razer Core and Alienware Graphics Amplifier.

Razer Core in action

Question is: Can we start thinking of external RAM/CPUs that integrate well with our smartphone? This is an interesting point that could be a potential avenue to how we use modularized components. This would mean introducing more physical ports and docking stations, which brings us to our next point.

One Size Fits All

In order to achieve the vision for a smartphone-only life and plug it into any on-the-go peripherals, we need to come up with a strong case on how to pair these devices painlessly.

An ideal solution for this is a universal communication standard that all manufacturers can agree on, such as past and present successes like the USB standard. Let’s take a relatively new kid in the block as an example. Enter USB-C.

We’ve seen USB-C in the newer consumer hardware such as ultrabooks like the new MacBook and Chromebook Pixel, to smartphones like the Nexus 6P. If USB-C can become the universal standard for screen sharing (ie. plugging it into an external monitor), charging and supporting additional peripherals, does having a smartphone with a single USB-C solve all our mobility caveats? Yes, if we’re willing to make it that way.

There were a couple of early projects around this “do everything with one cable” idea such as Ubuntu Touch. Microsoft has also been playing around with this idea too for a while now.

Microsoft’s Project Continuum

Although the Nexus 5 came out as slightly underpowered running recent versions of Ubuntu, coupled with the fact that it was using micro USB as opposed to USB-C, it broke down the barriers on where to take the smartphone next.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of pertaining questions on making such radical jumps in technology. How can we ensure there’s backwards compatibility? Will it be too hard to change? How do we know if USB-C is the “right” one? Is there a better alternative? Or should we spin our own and fight like hell to make it an industry standard? Could we also have a software solution with a higher level abstraction that works regardless of what physical port we’re aiming for?

Here’s another data point. Remember Project Ara, the one that Google suspended not too long ago? The engineers did a great job coming up with Greybus (an application layer for UniPro), where components, be it the camera or display, can all talk the same protocol via shared buses. That same protocol could have spun off for projects like the one described in this article. Hmm…

We are still in relatively new stages for this. As we go on unchartered territories, only more rapid prototyping, failing fast and learning from them will lead us to a “more correct” solution. I leave the reader here to ponder upon more interesting alternatives than what was described here.

Of Coffee, Emails and Algebra Slides

I promised to cover the second problem that I brought up: screen real estate. Here’s how I plan to address it.

I envision a future where mobile computing peripherals are going to be as easily and publicly accessible as ATMs. Mobile stations with a monitor, keyboard and mouse setup can deployed at your local Starbucks, with a single cable solution that is plugged right into your smartphone so you can touch up a slide deck before an important client meeting.

Someone could pop right into a meeting room, pull out his/her smartphone, dock it with one cable, and be prepared to talk.

Concluding Thoughts

We often get too distracted by the up and coming technologies such as VR/AR, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving being great platforms to bring big changes in society. No doubt that those could become huge successes, and I fully support that, but maybe great innovation can still come in a device that fits in our pockets.

Maybe innovation will come in not just the App Store, but how we make other peripherals work together with the smartphone. I’m coming from a point where the smartphone IS still the most portable device we have right now, at least before wearables get to this stage. The smartphone is almost always in our pocket or docked on the bedside table. It literally is our closest computer at any given point in time of the day.

People could have an abundance of computing power on the go, and with smartphones + remote workstations, they won’t have to open their laptops and hunch over while browsing through their Facebook News Feed. Everything can be done on a larger screen instead.

They could also plug their smartphone in at an airport kiosk with just monitors, keyboards and mice to get very productive. Long haul flights equipped with entertainment screens on the seats can be used for last minute board meeting deck edits or playing your favorite mobile game that does not come preinstalled on today’s old, clunky inflight entertainment systems.

Panasonic Avionics’s Jazz Seat concept

Ideally, we will live by the cloud without carrying around heavy hardware. Maybe we can think big and start by writing packaged desktop apps, install them, and have them work when they are connected to larger screens. Incremental steps like these are the ones that eventually tip over to something vastly different and interesting.

If we as a community pivoted and started integrating universal apps that work great on both small 5 inch screens and 27 inch monitors, we’ll be well on our way to unlocking another awesome era of computing.