Why Your Smartphone Will Be Your Next PC

The basic idea is that the smartphone itself is your PC and then docks into some type of shell. Various technologies have emerged that could make this vision a reality relatively soon.

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Doug Aamoth / TIME.com

Motorola's Atrix smartphone and Lapdock accessory.

About 20 years ago, when I was lugging around a 9-pound laptop on trips all over the world, I kept thinking that there had to be a better way to compute while traveling. At the time though, we only had the technology to deliver heavy and clunky portables. If you wanted to work while on the road, this is all anyone had available to them back then.

On one of my trips to London in 1992, I started envisioning what I would want in a portable computer if we had the necessary technology to make a more portable computing vision come true. While I could have envisioned a lighter, thinner and sleeker laptop, my actual vision was much more far reaching in concept.

As I was sitting on that flight, I began wondering, “What if the back of the seat in front me of had a screen on it and the tray table could flip over and have a keyboard built into it for input?” I then envisioned what I called a CPU brick, which I could plug into the keyboard. It would power this PC shell, and more importantly, it would have all of my personal user interfaces, content, email clients and everything else I needed. In other words, the brick would be my personal computer and I would just plug it into some kind of dock connected to screens on planes, trains, and in hotel rooms and airport lounges.

(MORE: Your Smartphone Will Become the Hub of Your Digital Lifestyle)

While the idea of having screens and keyboard docks available everywhere no longer makes sense, there is a similar concept emerging that in a way turns your smartphone into that CPU brick and makes various screens available for viewing your content. Early attempts at this came from Motorola with its Atrix smartphone and Lapdock accessory. Along the same lines is the Asus Padfone.

The basic idea here is that the smartphone itself is your PC and then docks into the back of either a portable screen or some type of laptop shell. At the time these products were released, smartphones really were not powerful enough to deliver a serious PC experience. But since then, various technologies have emerged that could make this vision a reality relatively soon.

The first key technology is based on the new mobile quad-core CPUs by Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel that are found in almost all new smartphones. Although they are low-voltage processors, most of them clock in at between 1.5 GHz and 2.1 GHz , which gives them PC class computing power. Sure they aren’t as powerful as CPUs with much higher processing speeds, but they all have graphics cores built into them and they all do a pretty good job of delivering personal computing functionality on a smartphone.

The other technology is called Mobile High-Definition Link, or MHL, which is a mobile audio/video interface standard for connecting portable electronics devices to high-definition displays. This is an important spec that is supported by dozens of industry companies and is already deployed in over 100 million smartphones. The major company producing specific MHL chips that go into televisions, home theater systems and all types of mobile devices is Silicon Image.

(MORE: The Future of Personal Computing: Cloud-Connected Screens Everywhere)

Last fall, Korea Telecom announced its Spider Laptop shell that can connect to an Android smartphone. It uses an MHL 2.0 cable for the connections currently. At the moment it uses its own Android phone for the connection, but the company has plans to make the Spider Laptop shell work with other Android phones in the future.

Samsung is also working on something like this, using the Spider Laptop shell reference design and working on tying it to the Samsung Galaxy III smartphone. Both versions use an MHL cable from the smartphone to the Spider Laptop shell to power it, but they could just as easily create some kind of MHL dock or even build a dock into the Spider Laptop shell over time.

While standalone laptops powered by their own CPUs and GPUs won’t go away, a new computing paradigm could emerge in which the smartphone actually becomes the center of our personal computing universe.

Keep in mind that the smartphone has all of your personal data, personal user interface and personal apps, and all you would need to have is a laptop shell or a desktop monitor connected to an MHL docking stand, which then mirrors all that’s on your smartphone.

(MORE: Why the iPhone Has a Head Start on the Future of Personal Computing)

Instead of buying a pricey laptop, various vendors could create laptops like the Spider that just have some basic screen technology, power supply and connector that can receive what the smartphone sends to it. Perhaps some internal storage or just an SD Card slot could be added in order to boost what can be stored on the laptop shell itself for future use.

Depending on the costs of the screens, these laptop shells could be priced as low as $129, although they’ll most likely cost closer to $179-$199 in the near future. Even more interesting is the fact that since the shell does not have to sport a lot of technology inside, it could be relatively thin and light as well — although in some models, it would be nice to have an extra battery in the shell to extends usage hours.

In some ways, my 1992 vision of a PC brick is coming true, although not quite as I had envisioned it. Rather, the brick itself will perhaps be a smartphone, and laptop shells, TVs and other screens will be the go-betweens for displaying our digital content and applications. We’ll have the option of using keyboards, mice, voice and gestures to interact with these screens, too. If this happens, then the smartphone really could become our main PC, in many ways changing the way we think about PCs in the near future.

MORE: What Is a PC?
Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

47 comments
zaglossus
zaglossus

If I'm at home or the office, I still mostly use the PC and don't see any reason to change.

Jericho_B_Monty
Jericho_B_Monty

@JonasMontemayor could also be your next atm card or wallet

ann.turta
ann.turta

The writer seems to have forgotten about the whole PDA era, when PDAs had a version of Windows and you could plug a portable keyboard into your PDA and work on documents in MS Word, etc. This was 10+ years ago. I remember typing on my "CPU brick" in Starbucks in like 2002.

Kulls
Kulls

Technology is updating and re inventing itself. You are right. Smartphones will work as your P.C soon enough with affordable prices and new features pretty soon. 

vistaeuro
vistaeuro

smart phone for everrr!!! lol :)

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alfsiew
alfsiew

@jacqui_yeo yeah I do think tablets or phones - in whatever forms - are the future. Boxed PCs will likely be an enthusiast hobby

GuardianLeo
GuardianLeo

@gracesong815 @TIME @Techland I believe it! And it's such a relief to only pay $49/month unlimited voice, text and data with @Solavei!

BoooomaYe
BoooomaYe

@TIME @techland it's my pic already, I do #everything on ma iphone

MhmdFzSalmon
MhmdFzSalmon

@TIME well perhaps (after skimming through the article)

_Silvermare_
_Silvermare_

@TIME @Techland Not likely, unless there are radical changes to smart phones. My PC serves me in ways that even the smartest phone cannot.

apsy202
apsy202

@TIME @techland half way there!

GRO_APCO
GRO_APCO

Interesting possibility MT @CTIA: The smartphone could become our main PC, changing the way we think about PCs. http://t.co/btlA4oUdzm

StewartCockrell
StewartCockrell

I think the bigger question will be when a generic shell comes out that fits all droid phones.  Having to shell out a couple hundred bucks every time I get a new phone is very wasteful to me.  I like the idea of this more and more, especially if you could plug in phone or tablet. 

SpaceCrazy
SpaceCrazy

.@TIME @Techland Isn't yours already?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Here's something I take exception to:

"Although they are low-voltage processors, most of them clock in at between 1.5 GHz and 2.1 GHz , which gives them PC class computing power. Sure they aren’t as powerful as CPUs with much higher processing speeds, but they all have graphics cores built into them and they all do a pretty good job of delivering personal computing functionality on a smartphone."

Functionality is one thing.  Efficiency is another.  These things sound great until one realizes that they have less efficiency than a Celeron processor.  Are you going to be rendering video, doing high resolution images or playing WoW on that thing at 120+ FPS?  No chance in hell.  Considering the physics involved to pack that much processing power into that small of a space, it will take a leap in technology we haven't made yet and are unlikely to be making anytime soon - and will cost a hell of a lot more than any PC would cost.  Will it REPLACE the desktop or laptop that CAN do those things?  Again, no chance in hell.  People drop their cell phones in toilets and leave them on their car roofs then drive off and get them stolen or lost all the time.  Imagine doing that with "all your personal data" and it's ALL YOUR DATA because you don't pay even more for (what is still unreliable) cloud storage or have a back-up at home.  People are stupid like that, but they're not so stupid as to hamstring their own

And another complete fiction:

"Keep in mind that the smartphone has all of your personal data, personal user interface and personal apps, and all you would need to have is a laptop shell or a desktop monitor connected to an MHL docking stand, which then mirrors all that’s on your smartphone."

It's not like the personal (I really hate the word) "apps" are all that efficient, nor does ANY smartphone contain all of one's personal data.  It lacks the capacity by about four orders of magnitude (My personal data, for example, comes in at a little over 1 TB.).  Most "apps" require finger painting.  Have you ever tried that in a laptop configuration?

So the headline asks a question that implies an egregious overestimation of the current state of the art with smartphones.  Compound that with the rising TCO of smartphones and I see a market severely handicapped by the short-sighted focus on the corporate bottom line.  So to answer the question, could your smartphone be your next PC?  No.  Not a chance.  And given the physics involved with getting a smartphone fully up to par with PC capabilities (which adds to the cost), combined with the inherent hazards of carrying around "everything you have" only in your phone with the vastly increased chances of having it lost, broken or stolen, it's unlikely anyone SANE would even want it to.

All that said, it's certainly a viable idea for those who are on the go to use a docking station instead of a laptop for those simple, easy, productivity programs - typing, e-mailing and surfing.  Even watching a movie will be better on a larger screen (assuming the resolution doesn't suffer, which it likely will since it only needs native resolution for best performance rather than worrying about a screen size eight to twelve times the size it was originally designed for). 

But until it can do everything a PC can do as well as a PC can do it, it will NEVER be a REPLACEMENT for a PC.

cour_jester
cour_jester

@TIME in short pc will be OS agnostic& work together like Unbuntu but with any vendors OS,shared resources& seemless integration Beyond BYOD

cour_jester
cour_jester

@TIME input devices like mouse won't be used as much. A wrist watch,needs a different type of controls

cour_jester
cour_jester

@TIME I personaly feel its more colaborable devices. That interconnect&share resources. User interfaces like Win8 but not as srcewed up .

commentor2013
commentor2013

@TIME dépends on your needs. Many no longer use PCs and migrated to a tablet (frequent flyers and young crowd. No reversal in perspective...

COCFBLA
COCFBLA

@TIME @Techland smartphones and tablets are competing w/ personal computers. However, I don't think PC are going away any time soon.

bipp09
bipp09

@TIME @Techland it already has

leonbakhan
leonbakhan

@TIME @Techland ..mine is already in such use.

EuoeaoK
EuoeaoK

@TIME @Techland Technology, it advances morally so you don't have to.

plumbum821
plumbum821

@TIME @Techland My eyes beg to differ #wherearemyglasses?

ag1812
ag1812

I'm a fellow wonderer "why not?" for 2 decades:  If a monitor and keyboard cost next to nothing, why not have a set at each place you frequent, and carry only a few "chips" with your favorite processor and memory?  Today the few chips refer to a 4-core phone and an SD card or SSD.  Nothing that won't fit your pocket. "Plug me in, Scotty!"

jacqui_yeo
jacqui_yeo

@alfsiew Mobile OS wars heating up. Am keen to see what Firefox has up their sleeve + if they can pull it off.