Convergence is coming like a train on rails…

Blogger Brian Posey, discussing Microsoft’s ‘Continuum’ concept, has this;

In another demo, someone connected their Windows Phone to a large screen and to a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Not only did Office expand to accommodate the larger screen size, but the experience was identical to that of working on a PC.  The presenter even said that with some of the higher-end phone models it will be possible to use your phone as a phone and a “PC” at the same time. It would be possible, for example, to work on a spreadsheet on the big screen while talking on the phone, playing a game or watching a video on the phone’s built-in display.

Using the phone as a PC seemed like a completely seamless experience. The only indication that the presenter was not using a PC was the fact that there was no desktop mode.

This is convergence, and I predict (with my usual complete lack of originality) that it will produce a major upheaval, and the final nail in the coffin of the traditional PC as a consumer device. I’ve been going on about it for ages, but not here so far.

The logic is simple. If you have, always with you, a powerful-enough computer that has access to all the software and data you need, then why would you ever bother to use a different device? Why would you spend out on another powerful computer, with different software, that is effectively immobile – another device that condemns you to continually switching interfaces, worrying about synchronisation, using different networks, different UI paradigms. Seriously, why?

Well, for quite a number of very good reasons, you are no doubt thinking – but the thing is, all of those reasons are melting away, and melting fast…

Even though buying a smart-phone; (yet) another computer, with a teeny-tiny screen, a dreadful keyboard, restricted storage and limited, one-trick-pony apps felt like a gadget-greedy thing at first, the simple fact that it allowed us to carry our digital world with us wherever we went made it a compelling purchase. The “Why buy another computer…” argument simply fell away in the face of that potential, but from the very day of purchase, the dreaded ‘synchronisation issues’ became something that we have all spent cumulative days and weeks suffering with.

Our once monolithic digital world has become fragmented, and the only believable way back to simplicity is for the mobile device to take over, for desktop machines to once again become the (costly) preserve of workers in specific sectors.

What’s holding us back from ditching the desktop? Some very real fears, married to an ingrained (and somewhat self-serving) techy prejudice.

Reasons to be fearful, Part 1

1: Restricted physical interaction: small screens, on-screen touch keyboards. This is a big deal. I’m ashamed to say that I can hardly walk to the shops without making sure I have my ‘phone with me, but I’m rarely tempted to do anything significant (like writing blog posts) using it. It’s simple; I don’t enjoy tiny screens, and I actively dislike on-screen keyboards (which dislike is merely an overlay on my deep despair at the stranglehold qwerty has on digital culture). That said, if you’re not already using Swiftkey, then try it – you may increase a step-change in productivity.

Despite the ever-increasing scope of mobile apps (see below), I have never been tempted to do more than dabble: I just know that the experience is going to be frustrating – I already have a desktop with its familiar mouse, keyboard and big screen. And of course, I’m not alone. Posts by the likes of James McKendrick about the surprising effectiveness of mobile devices for ‘real work’ notwithstanding, the sight of someone with a little smartphone propped up above a folding keyboard in a cafe is still surprising. Every time I see one of this rare breed, I am rubber-necking with the rest (what’s s/he up to? why? what? oh. email. ).

Nevertheless, I am convinced that this will change, change soon, and change fast, and the quote above begins to show why. It would have happened years ago, I believe, had not Apple and its hardware-based megaprofits been in the ascendant. Hardware people want us to own lots of devices, of course; a desktop, a lap-top, a smart-phone, a smart-watch – and then upgrade them all at regular intervals. If software had been in on top, things might have moved sooner, as convergence has great benefits for developers – Ubuntu introduced Unity 5 years ago, and Mark Shuttleworth explicitly pointed towards convergence on a smart-phone format in 2013.

So it makes sense that the apparently re-energised Microsoft under Satya Nadella, refocused as it appears to be on software and services, is looking to a converged world – it may even offer a way for them to challenge Apple’s dominance; after all, if you can buy one phone, a cheap screen and keyboard, and have a consistent computing experience everywhere, as opposed to two, three or more machines (I regularly use 5, phone included) and a synchronisation-distorted digital life, then the old ‘Apple tax’ is revitalised as a marketing tool with a vengeance.

What will it take for this to become a reality? Phones have got about as big as they can, without addressing these issues to any useful extent, and the form-factor is now mature. Phones aren’t about to sprout fold-out screens or inflatable keyboards. We need hardware; simple, easy to use commodity docking devices that connect via USB and are hardware and OS agnostic (perhaps in the format of a braindead laptop) – these should be available to borrow, for a deposit, in your local coffee shop/library.

But wait, cheap laptops already exist! What about a simple, bombproof linux distro that takes a USB line in from any phone out there, and provides screen/keyboard capacity? Such a thing would run on the countless tired old laptops lying around (some of which have great keyboards), until we get the holy grail; a new typing paradigm that obviates the need for qwerty in the first place (on which I may write more at another time).

2: Ineffective for real work: software tailored for small screens is not flexible enough. Early on, Apple set the format for apps; they should be simple, single purpose tools, with very restricted workflow options – if you had two sets of functionality, make two apps. This made sense at the time – the paradigms of mobile interaction were new, unfamiliar and immature – people had enough to do to get their heads around the unavoidable characteristics of this new device category, but all the signs are that this approach is on the way out; increasing abilities for multi-app working on all platforms are becoming the norm, while Google Now and forthcoming iOS ‘proactive’ aim to offer you the appropriate app in an ever increasing variety of situations.

Already, sophisticated apps for writing, graphics manipulation and even CAD on smart devices are easy to find – I’ve played with them, been amazed at their functionality, and then abandoned them as painful on a tiny device. There is no shortage of computing power on mobile devices – indeed, there is a view that there is no pressure on manufacturers to significantly increase speed at present – there simply isn’t the demand – but this means that, should additional computing horsepower be required, there is technological capacity ready and waiting. [Later edit: I received an email today from Panic software, who make cool tools for mac techs, announcing a fully-fledged iOS version of Coda, their respected code editor product – this is called momentum]

3: Not enough storage. 128Gb not enough for you? What, you really, really want to carry your entire music and photography collection with you, at all times? Well buy a phone that takes a micro-SD card and add another 128. Or wait a (short) while – the growth in memory capacity is rapid, while your rate of photo acquisition has probably already peaked. In 2013 a 1Gb SD card was newsworthy, while nowadays 128Gb is straightforward, with the promise of 1Tb in the near future. And that’s ignoring the cloud.

The hardware demands unleashed by adoption of mobile devices as our one-and-only computers might in fact be welcomed with open arms by manufacturers (those that don’t have big lap-top businesses, anyway), who are finding it harder and harder to differentiate new products and drive the upgrade cycle they crave.

4: You can NOT be serious! This trope has been persistent in enterprise IT circles (mostly evident in snarky comment streams) – where, despite everyone owning smart-devices, there is a somewhat desperate insistence that they’re toys, that everyone has been ‘drinking the Apple Kool-aid’ – that THEY’RE JUST NOT PROPER COMPUTERS, DAMMIT! This is understandable, but also a little bit funny; in a world where the rate of change is driven by the relentless positive feedback loop of VC money, rather than being tailored to mere human capacities, this is a phenomenon that afflicts us all – it is only funny because these very techs are the types who mid-wifed the changes that have had the rest of us running to keep up for a decade or two.

But why are they so upset? IMHO, it is because something bad is going to happen for geeks as convergence takes hold – I referred to it above, and it’s this; the really powerful, flexible machines that they love to use have always been desktops, and the price of these is set to rise, and steeply, as regular consumers (and eventually enterprises too) stop buying non-mobile devices. True geek-dom will require spending a great deal more as volume drops by orders of magnitude.  Their experience will parallel those of petrol-heads – the newer, more effective devices will be less-and-less amenable to tinkering, and the machines they enjoy will become ever more expensive. They will pay through the nose for the privilege of looking down at our ‘toys’.


Hardware is the gatekeeper – but perhaps the gate could be opened with software. ‘Real work’ capable apps and operating systems are already there, and it has been proved many times how quickly the eco-system responds to strong new usage paradigms. Hardware is just waiting for a demand ‘pull’.

I’m actually quite excited by the idea of a dedicated linux distro that exists only to allow any phone to use any old laptop as an interface device. Ideas on a postcard please!

There’s a couple of other drivers for convergence that I haven’t mentioned – first, that it makes no sense, any more, to develop and sell devices of almost any kind that have computing power built-in. Anything, anything, that has a built-in controller chip that does anything of any sophistication, should put in a blue-tooth or wifi chip instead, and hand over control to a mobile app. This is already happening for thousands of device categories, the ‘brainless’ devices being cheaper to make, easier to upgrade and more engaging to use. Secondly, the mobile is becoming the clear front-runner candidate for your personal internet-of-things master device.

All-in-all, the imminent network effects that will push the ‘phone to be the pre-eminent general-purpose computing device seem irresistible. Until then, I’ll be typing blog posts on my trusty laptop, while my mobile sits idly by, gradually running its battery down.

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