How Smart Phones Outclassed the Personal Computer

Human innovation has always followed stages from invention, to rapid growth, maturity and then finally decline as newer innovations over take the older ones. This is the normal course of events as we seek to improve on each generation and take our products and capabilities to higher levels of productivity. In the early days such changes in innovation was measured in years, if not decades due to the fact that collaboration, financial requirements and marketing to name a few was difficult to come by and implement. However as societies have grown each of these factors have become progressively easier as we have integrated and connected with each other more and more. In fact this integration has driven the requirement for new innovation to improve business processes and enhance our daily lives. Each new innovation has sought to either improve on the last, or take us in an entirely new direction. While listing all such changes would be an impossible task, a classic example would be to review the development of personal computers and mobile phones. Both started as something focused on the requirement of the elite, but quickly evolved for use in the mass market. Both were viewed as a game changer and in many ways drove innovation in other industries as well. However as with all innovative products, they both surged to great prominence and then began to falter as newer innovations came on the market. This article is focused on these two pioneers of the technology industry. The purpose will be to review their development first independently and then as competitors, and how this led to the development of a new class of products that would overwhelm them both.


The Evolution of the Personal Computer

When the personal computer was introduced it was a clunky contraption, not very user friendly and it was hardly something that the common man would find interesting, or required in his or her daily life. In fact computers started as giant computing machines (hence the term computer) that were used by educational or industrial applications to solve complex problems. Their huge size, low computing power and high power requirements meant there were only a few constructed. That was over 30 years ago. As with any new product, human innovation always looks at improvement and key changes occurred which drove the development of the computer further. First was the development of the microchip that allowed the process of miniaturization of the computer as well as the simultaneous increase in computing power. The second was the realization that the software that runs a computer is more important than the hardware that makes up a computer. Pioneers such as Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs at Apple correctly bet that if they could get a user friendly personal computer in front of the public, they could develop an entirely new industry based on it. And that is exactly what happened as we saw with the advent of Microsoft Windows and the Apple Macintosh. This started a trend that saw continuing improvements in software and supporting applications, along with developments on the hardware side that saw smaller, but more powerful personal computers at lower prices. The results of this saw the adoption of the personal computer on a mass scale. This confounded the view held by such companies as IBM that had concluded that personal computers could not be a mass market product, even though it was instrumental in the development of the first personal computer. IBM failed to see the next evolutionary step in the personal computer, along with the development of software and its potential appeal to consumers.

In fact software became so important it began to drive the changes in the hardware to generate ever more powerful computers to handle increasingly complex software requirements. Personal computers shrank in size and even became mobile with the development of the Notebook. Each new generation of software included everything from office productivity tools to personal processing requirements. In time the personal computer evolved to such a state that it became an indispensable part of both our personal and professional lives. This led naturally to the next key change which was the evolution of the internet which provided the ability to connect computers and people seamlessly over interconnected networks. This development more than any other exploded the use of the personal computer, as it became a tool not only for personal work but for collaboration and sharing in real-time. Personal computers had become a key tool in the business, government and corporate sectors. The last key change that spurred this evolution forward was the advent of wireless communications which gave rise to wireless internet access such as WiFi. This development gave personal computers including notebooks the ability to work and connect wherever a “WiFi hotspot” or wireless internet connection was available. You could now use the personal computer as a device for most of your personal and professional work requirements, as well as connect via the internet for collaborative work, information gathering and messaging. The personal computer market had matured and reached its peak of use. However it is interesting that this last key change would lead directly to the next major innovation in the industry that would start to affect its dominance.

The Evolution of the Mobile Phone

While the personal computer was focused on providing tools to help us with our personal and business tasks, there was another piece of equipment that had begun development that would also become an important part of our lives. The common fixed line telephone was a standard requirement that most households and establishments used as a means of real-time communications. Each telephone was connected point to point via a wired network. So providing you could access a fixed line telephone you could communicate with another individual. However this did nothing for those who were mobile and thus not contactable until they next checked in. People would have liked to be able to communicate while they were moving, but there was nothing available for this purpose. This simple realization began a remarkable technological change. The first change was the development of the paging system which was the concept of carrying a device with you which had a number through which you could get an alpha numeric message from another person while you were moving. This was helped through the development of telecommunication networks that could transmit these messages wirelessly, and hence relieve the person of having to be in a physical location with a fixed line telephone to get a message. While clearly a major development it was seen as somewhat limiting as it was only one way. You could receive a page but you could not respond to it. This led to the next major development which was the analog mobile phone that allowed you to make and receive phone calls. These phones were huge, very expensive, and had a limited battery life so could not really be considered a mass market product. Additionally it operated like a normal fixed line phone which meant that your identity was encoded into the phone for you to be accessible.

Finally we saw the development of digital mobile networks and phones with its primary standard GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications). This allowed for the separation of the customer identity from the phone device using a card called the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) onto which the Telecommunication Service providers would encode your personal identity. This SIM card could then be used on any digital mobile device you liked. This led to the explosion in the growth of the mobile phone market because now a phone could be designed for any subscriber sector or requirement, as the user could choose whichever phone he wanted. Additionally with the simultaneous development of telecommunication networks this meant cheaper calls and higher subscriptions. Suddenly you had the prospect of cheap, functional, mobile phones for the mass market. To further expand the market telecommunication service providers drove the development of prepaid mobile cards whereby subscribers did not need to sign up for a mobile service, but buy service access as and when they need it based on their budget. This further expanded the market and brought the mobile phone revolution to the mass market. The result of this was that you now had a device with which you could communicate with anyone from anywhere, and you could choose the type of mobile phone you wanted based on your own requirement. Yet competition among vendors did not allow the mobile phone to stay at this stage and in fact further innovation was to come.

The Advent of the Smart Phone

So there were now two devices in the market, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Both had become an important part of our daily lives, the first for conducting our work and the other for communicating with others. It was a matter of time before the convergence of the two began to become a reality. The trigger for this development was as I mentioned earlier the evolution of the internet. This simple concept of sharing and collaborating in real-time, messaging and emailing, and eventually social networking was growing in leaps and bounds. Personal computers were evolving from standalone terminals for storing information and which were powerful to do any tasks, to networked devices which were increasingly sharing and storing information in the “internet cloud” or on line. While mobile computers were quite common they were dwarfed in number by the utilization of the mobile phone for communications. These phones had become ubiquitous as the need for communication was so vital, and the economics of its use was so feasible. This led to the idea that if you can access the internet on your computer wirelessly, then why not the internet on your mobile phone as well. It was not seen as a replacement, but rather as a complement to your personal computer as it was more likely that your mobile phone would be with you all the time rather than your personal computer. This development coupled with the onset of high speed mobile telecommunication networks meant that it could become a reality. However due to its small screen size and keyboard, initially the mobile phone device was not very effective for internet use. Navigation of the internet was very difficult and so the primary use became that of receiving and sending email, such as the use of the Blackberry which excelled at this task. That was until another revolution occurred on the mobile device itself.

Steve Jobs of Apple is often credited with this, which saw the development of his ground breaking IPhone mobile phone which had a large screen and no key pad. In fact it was a touch screen phone and it caused a major shift in the market. For the first time you had a device on which you could browse the internet, navigate easily and so be connected online. Again with the advance of mobile network technology and bandwidth, you increasingly had access to high speed network access and cheap data connections that allowed you to download data, music and even video. The mobile phone was now truly internet enabled but that was not all. The real innovation was the development of mobile phone applications or “apps”. These were software applications to be run on your phone which could duplicate many if not most of your applications from your personal computer. It was now becoming possible to utilize your mobile device for both communication and work, and hence the development of the concept of the “smart phone”. Was it really necessary to have two devices, namely the mobile phone and the personal computer, when the smart phone could do the work for both and be an easier mobile accessory for use? The mass market has provided the answer to this question as the sales for smart phones have soared as have their sophistication, capabilities, range of applications and price competitiveness. This was a product that saw the merging of two separate technological changes into one. The smart phone instead of being a complement to the personal computer was now beginning to look more like a threat to its future, and thus this began the gradual erosion of the personal computer’s dominance in its field.

The Decline of the Personal Computer

With the onset of the smart phone revolution questions were raised on the viability of the personal computer. The feasibility and future of any product depends on consumers and they show their wishes through the sales that they make. Numerous studies have shown that in the last decade that personal computer sales have seen a remarkable drop while at the same time there has been an increase in the sales of mobile phones and devices. In addition another trend that is becoming clear that even in the mobile devices market, smart phones are forming an increasing part of that market, with the projection that they will outstrip normal mobile phones in the next 1-2 years. We are witnessing a period of rapid growth for smart phones which is like what the personal computer and the mobile phone had before it. The market can only grow for smart phones at the expense of these two devices especially the personal computer. Computer manufacturers have been fighting back by slimming down their desktop lines and offering more options on their mobility lines. These include net books, ultra books and starting with Apple the tablet with built in wireless mobile connections which give the consumer the power of a personal computer in a smaller size, with the connectivity and speed of a smart phone. Unfortunately this has been a reactive response rather than proactive. Consumers have quite some time ago decided to switch to smart phones as their primary computing and communication device, with a mobile computer or tablet as a secondary device for the tasks that the smart phone still cannot do due to issues usually relating to size and processing power. Even the innovation in software is shifting to mobile applications with this platform commonly seen as having the highest growth in the industry. Apple was recently quoted as saying that its Apps Store currently has over 800,000 mobile apps and is still growing. The fundamental shift in the market has been towards mobility with everywhere internet access as the need to connect, collaborate and share continues to grow. An ecosystem of mobile applications to aid in both professional and personal work at all levels, together with social networking and cloud services where storage and applications are kept in the internet cloud is only driving this trend.

Due to this, the dominance of the smart phone is highly unlikely to change for the time being, especially with the cost of having a high speed data and voice connection from your service provider continuing to drop. Personal Computer manufacturers and Microsoft the main supplier of the operating system for them, continue to face declining requirements for their products. Some personal computer manufacturers have even chosen to start their own smart phone line like Lenovo, as they refocus on mobility and mobile devices at the expense of personal computers. This will only speed the decline of sales of the personal computer. On the software side Microsoft has re-engineering its operating system to work on the mobile platform as the primary interface rather than the personal computer. So much so users of its flag ship operating system are refusing to upgrade as the newest version is not seen as suitable for the personal computer! But even here there is an ongoing change as Google has made significant inroads with rightly calling the bet early in the “Mobile Decade” by engineering a free and open mobile platform called Android. This has overwhelmed Microsoft as the mobile platform of preference for both users and manufacturers, and it has become the dominant player for mobile operating systems in the smart phone market. What has become clear is that personal computer manufacturers face a dilemma. How to address the mobility requirement of consumers without in effect giving up their personal computer line completely? They have no clear answer and while they consider how to react, the smart phone market continues to grow in power and innovative features while at the same time getting more price competitive for the mass market. This is a clear indicator that the smart phone is the future and it is here to stay! Unfortunately for the personal computer we may very well be witnessing its gradual decline to a niche product required for particular high processing computing requirements, much like its early predecessors. It appears the personal computer is heading to a full cycle.

The Challenges

Thus what we have seen is a clear shift to smart phones with consumers adopting them on a mass scale. While it is often assumed this is an expected change one must also realize that this change comes with challenges that need to addressed, to ensure this revolution heads in the right direction. The first challenge is on the issue of security. If you analyze carefully the growth in the smart phone market you will notice it is being driven from consumers and not businesses or the corporate world, or even the government. The main reason for this is that the threat to security to their internal networks is still viewed as too great to roll-out and allow wide-scale access. Yes there has been a greater adoption of the concept of BYOD (Bring your own Device) which allows employees to bring their own mobile device and connect to corporate or government networks to conduct their work. But the access is often limited and severely controlled. Security is a very valid issue and with cyber theft and fraud exceedingly common, it is the number one issue that needs to be addressed to move smart phones to the next level of access. Industry forums are already working on standards to address this, but this will be an ongoing challenge that will need to be addressed now and in the future. Another important challenge is that of individual privacy. With the number of smart phones growing in number and sophistication, having high resolution cameras and offering an easy way for instant access and sharing, privacy is increasingly becoming difficult to protect. How do you reconcile personal rights and public need, or privacy and exploitation? It is often said innovation grows faster than society’s ability to adapt, and thus we have laws that have been written for a different era when the technology we have today did not exist. There is therefore an urgent need that the government and privacy advocacy groups look seriously at a review of existing law to address this challenge of privacy, before such issues grow beyond society’s tolerance level.

Finally no discussion of the challenges of smart phones is complete without the discussion of one unexpected one, and that is the issue of the environment. Today there are more mobile devices on the planet than there are people and these include multiple generations of the same phone. Each of these devices while a technological marvel, is an environmental disaster in the making. The reason for this is that many materials used to make these devices what they are, are either toxic or not bio-degradable. In effect we are sponsoring a device which has such potential to improve lives, by possibly sacrificing the environment we live in. One thing that personal computers and smart phones share is the fact that many environmental studies have shown that electronic devices which are disposed are now becoming one of the main causes for environmental decay. But in the case of smart phones this is higher due to the sheer volume of the ones being disposed. On average consumers replace their device every 1-2 years and this is dropping as the time between phone generations continues to fall. The challenge for the industry, government and consumers is to work out a way to enjoy the technological advantage smart phones offer, but also to find an environmental friendly way to dispose of them as well. Already there are companies offering services for this purpose, but they are few and not widely accepted due to cost and lack of awareness. It is important that effective lobby groups be formed to view this issue as urgent with the goal to create the standards along with government support, to enforce a new regime to manage this growing issue. We all enjoy having a smart phone but few think of it after we dispose it. If we are to be responsible consumers then this is a challenge we must face as well.

What the Smart Phone Vendors can Learn from the Personal Computer

The purpose of this article was to show how technology evolves, becomes dominant, declines and finally becomes irrelevant. The personal computer was the first real mass market technological tool that had immense applications for society. It grew to such dominance that it was considered an indispensable device and few thought it would ever go away. Personal computers provided an option to help people organize and speed their work both personally and professionally, and with the development of the internet, a way to stay connected and collaborate efficiently. Personal Computer manufacturers and software vendors worked together to make a strong platform that provided numerous benefits to the consumers. However where they failed was in noticing the next great shift in technology which was towards the mobile device. By failing to anticipate this shift they were unable to adopt the necessary strategies in time to address the change. This left the field open for new players to dominate a new industry and so began the smart phone surge. This is the key lesson learnt from the evolution of the personal computer. Technology cycles are not forever and it must be accepted that products see a continuing cycle of rapid growth, maturity and finally decline. Therefore the journey of the personal computer is an important precursor of what will happen with smart phones down the road. It has to be acknowledged that eventually smart phones will also follow this path as this is the natural course of things, but what is required is for vendors to acknowledge this and strive to work towards the next big innovation. One way mobile phone manufacturers are addressing this is by investing a large portion of their revenues in research and development to constantly move the boundaries of innovation to ever higher levels. That being said outside vendors such as Google are going a step further and re-imagining the concept of mobility completely. Their prototype called Google Glass is one where internet, voice and video are seemingly integrated into a normal pair of spectacles. It is just one example of a future innovation of a mobile device. It is completely unlike our smart phone, but yet will incorporate all its features and much more. It is a warning shot to smart phone vendors that they cannot presume to take their position for granted. Innovation is an imperative that cannot be controlled and the smart phone is one more step like the personal computer on this road. The lesson to learn is whether the current players have it in them to evolve to the next level, or like the personal computer manufacturers, fail to see the changes and be unable to adapt to them. This is the reason smart phones outclassed the personal computers, but it is also the reason that if these smart phone vendors are not careful, the next great innovation will out class the smart phone as well! The title of a book and its main premise, written by Andrew Grove former CEO and Chairman of Intel, serves as a proper summary for this view - “Only the Paranoid Survive”


1. We now spend more time using smartphones than surfing the web on PCs

2. Computer vs. Smartphone

3. 2014 looks like the year when smartphones finally crush PCs

4. Your Smartphone Is a Better PC than Your PC Ever Was or Will Be

5. How the smartphone is killing the PC

6. There can only be one: Smartphones are the PCs of the future

Computers | Business | Technology

QR Code
QR Code how_smart_phones_outclassed_the_pc (generated for current page)