This Is Not A Phone
By Mike Masnick, Wed Jan 26 02:00:00 GMT 2005

In the world of "this vs. that" arguments, there are new stories about how smartphones will be able to compete with laptops. Of course, when you look at the details, it goes beyond either laptops or mobile phones -- and blurring those lines may be important.

Stories about smartphones encroaching on the territory of laptops are not all that new. They're usually judged on the "number of days" criteria. That is, "with this smartphone, I can go away for three days without my laptop, but any longer, and I'd need the full computer." However, it appears an industry is growing up around the idea of building the tools to make the number of days increase noticeably. While the initial attempts are being done by accessories providers, don't be surprised when the handset manufacturers get into the game as well. Even so, assuming the laptop makers will stay out of the game may be underestimating them as well.

The components needed are pretty straightforward. You need computing power, some sort of connectivity, some system for data entry and a display system. These are common among both laptops and mobile phones, but the form factors are obviously quite different. Phones focus more on the portability aspect, while laptops tend to focus more on the productivity side of things. That means, of course, that laptops have larger displays and keyboards, and are bit more on the "luggable" side than pocket-sized.

While the components of a phone can shrink even more, that doesn't help so much with the productivity part of the equation. That's part of the reason efforts are under way to rush to market various accessories to increase the productivity quotient of a phone, while still keeping it portable. This includes ideas like laser keyboards and foldable displays -- both of which have been talked about for a while, but are finally reaching the point where they aren't so far out of reach.

This may seem like a "threat" for laptop makers, but that may not be the case at all. While not every laptop maker is known for pushing the envelope when it comes to more innovative design, many do take chances in trying to continually shrink the overall size of the laptop, without destroying its ability to be a productive work tool. Since the basic components are all the same, what's to stop the laptop provider from taking the same approach, just coming from the other direction? What if they detach the screens and the keyboards, shrink the process and the hard drive, keep the wireless connectivity and sell the input mechanism and display as portable add-ons as well? Since they come from the PC world, there's also less difficulty in needing to be tied to a particular network type. Laptop makers could make these new devices with a variety of wireless radios (or, perhaps, software defined radio, to make it adjustable). Corporate buyers tend to already have stronger relationships with PC makers than handset makers, which could also present a challenge.

If things do move towards this world where the components separate and shrink, in order to make them more portable, but still productive, defining the devices as "phones" or "laptops" will no longer make sense. If either side wants to really take over this market, in fact, they're probably better off thinking about things with a clean slate. It's not about how to make a phone competitive with a laptop, or shrinking a laptop to make it competitive with the phone -- but figuring out what combination of portability and productivity makes the most sense for users, no matter what the device is called. That means, not looking at it as one side competing against the other, but working to figure out the best combination of portability and productivity that can be achieved with the technology available.