When cars become trucks

Fri May 16, 2014

At the All Things Digital conference in 2010, Walt Mossberg asked Steve Jobs if he thought the iPad would supplant the PC. Steve paused to think for a long moment. then this is what he said:

I’m trying to think of a good analogy. When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks. But as people moved more towards urban centers, people started to get into cars. I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them. And this is going to make some people uneasy.

As iPad sales accelerated and PC sales declined over the next four years, the age of the tablet seemed a sure thing. But this year, that growth abruptly levelled off. Dustin Curtis astutely observed that the tablet was just a diversion toward a future where everyone’s computer is their mobile phone. Indeed, the “phablet” moniker already seems anachronistic as large screens in the 4.5 to 5.5-inch range on flagship phones have become commonplace.

Even Apple, who have long held to their philosophy that svelte phones are ideal for one-handed use, are caving in to the demand and are rumoured to be releasing  both 4.7 and 5.5-inch screen iPhones this year. It doesn’t seem a stretch to predict that the ridiculously ubiquitous smartphone will eventually kill off both tablets and PCs.

But hold on. We’ll always need trucks, right? Right now desktop PCs still do the heavy lifting in our daily work, and not just for processor-heavy tasks like video editing. We all use large monitors in our workplaces, whether we are coding, designing, or filling out an excel spreadsheet. We likely use a laptop or desktop at home as a hub for our pictures or for the times when we need to produce instead of consume.

But this is a 20th-century conceit. Four years ago, a quad-core PC with 4 GB of RAM seemed like a powerhouse. But today’s phones are getting close to matching that. Granted, they’re running a less power-hungry CPU because of concerns with battery life. But, with the pace things are going, I can see phones surpassing PCs in horsepower in the not-too-distant future. Cars will become trucks by default.

Let’s talk about what Apple could do to really revolutionize the post-PC era. After all, they’re clearly not afraid of cannibalizing sales on their own products if it means a more badass future (does anyone miss the iPod?). Is it so hard to imagine a Mac mini, which is already pretty small, integrated into an iPhone? Which already has a 64-bit desktop-class architecture by the way?

It seems inevitable when you think about it. Dock your iPhone and it switches from iOS to OS X (or possibly the two operating systems will eventually become a merged variant). A wireless keyboard and mouse automatically pair with your phone and an external monitor syncs with it through advanced Airplay protocols. Boom. You’re up and running with a user interface most people are comfortable sitting down and working in. When you’re done, take your phone out the dock and it switches context to iOS to better suit your mobile activities.

IT costs at your work would plummet as BYOD becomes “Bring Your Own Desktop phone” instead of “Bring Your Own Device”. With cloud storage being free, or near enough, your phone will replace the PC as your hub at home. No more transferring your pictures from your phone to your PC anymore. Having multiple devices will seem downright wasteful as they all converge into one.

Let’s be honest - with biometric sensors, an AI assistant, fingerprint security, etc. the phone is already more advanced than the PC. Add horsepower and the flexibility to interface with the screen sizes and peripherals that you need in any given situation, and you have the ultimate computer. A computer you would probably upgrade every two years instead of five - even further increasing the pace of innovation in an insanely competitive market. Welcome to the true post-PC era.

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