If you’ve done any long term strategic planning you know there are few absolutes but, very many scenarios. Tech history shows that even disruptive innovations take time to rollout and many scenarios existed that could have gone both ways. BlockBuster saw digital media coming and I will bet they had scenarios that showed varying levels of digital video acceptance showing what would happen to them if they didn’t lead levels of digital media leadership or lowest price. What if the publishers had stuck to their earlier guns and hastened digital rollouts? That could have given BlockBuster breathing room to develop more and they may still be around in their prior form.
There are other scenarios rolling out that are very interesting in that they could disrupt a giant, 500M unit market. That is, the scenario that has the smartphone “taking out” the personal computer.
I’d like to take a look at a few variables that could increase the likelihood of this happening. Remember, it’s not about absolutes, but about different scenarios and their chance of happening. Also, I’m not saying absolutely it will happen, but it is a viable scenario.
The New Personal
It all starts with the end user and making choices. If posed with the question, “if you had to choose between your phone of the PC, which one would you pick?” Sure, most want both, but making them choose makes them prioritize, and most would pick the phone. Why? One reason is that its so personal. People take it in the bed, bathroom, our pocket, on the dinner table. It knows where we are, what we’re doing, who we’re with, can communicate how we feel, etc. There are even reports that people would rather starve or refrain from sex rather than separate from their phone. Net-net, the phone is more personal and one variable that could, scenario speaking, accelerate the erosion and “take down” of the PC.
Good Enough Computing
Setting input and output aside for a second, the smartphone is pretty good, or good enough, for most email, web, social media, and light content creation. The web has actually “dumbed down” a but to make this possible and apps have helped almost as much Light content creation is writing email, editing photos, creating social media posts, and even taking notes. The big usage model exceptions to this are workstations and extreme PC gaming even though these are starting to be processed in the cloud. Most all else, scenario speaking, can be processed in the cloud.
The iPhone 4s and the iPad 2 can already wirelessly mirror what is on the phone or tablet on the next best display. Most Android devices and even QNX can work with a full size wireless keyboard and mouse. Extrapolate that ahead three to five years with quad core general purpose processing, today’s console graphics capability, and even better wireless display technologies and it doesn’t seem, scenario speaking, that there won’t be a whole lot the user cannot do.
For “desktop” use, users will be connect to full size displays at high resolutions with full size keyboards, trackpads, and mice. Apple Siri, Microsoft Tellme and Google Voice Actions voice interfaces will be greatly enhanced in future iterations and can serve as the secondary input. Scenario-speaking, laptops could be wireless “shells” and leverage the processing power, graphics, memory, storage and wireless plans. The shells would cost a lot less than a full fledged laptop and have the convenience in that the content, apps, wireless plan is in one place.
One potential modular wild-card are flexible displays. While these have been demonstrated at every CES for over a decade, they appear to be getting very close to reality. While details are hard to come by, Samsung indicated that they will be shipping flexible displays in 2012. This could mean in phones by 2012 or shipped to OEM customers in 2012 for shipment in 2013. HP has been very active as well with their flexible display technology in alliance with ASU, the US Army, Du Pont, and E-Ink. HP is positioning their technology not only great for phones and watches, but also for larger POS displays, interactive advertising, and even on the sides of buildings. As it relates to smartphone modularity, think about “unfolding” a 10″ display from your 3″ device. That changes everything.
Potential Winners and Losers in Scenario
There are obvious winners and losers in this scenario. The big winners will be those who can monetize the smartphone or thin client and the cloud. Losers will be those who are stuck in the old model of computing, scenario speaking. If you’re one of those companies, I’d be rethinking your strategy.
Protectionism Rarely Works Over Time
Any scenario where well established and large losers exist, there will be protectionism. Over time, protecting something with such consumer benefit and such upside for other companies very rarely works. This is especially true for this scenario given the high levels of consumerism. Today, consumers have access to great info from the web and it’s amplified in the social media echo chamber. It’s hard to snow over consumers in any high value scenario.
The “smartphone kills the PC” scenario isn’t novel or new, but it is certainly one of the most important one of this decade. And certainly one of the most controversial as well given the 500M unit stakes with the winners and losers. How many of those will really be modular smartphones and how many will be PCs as we now it today?