Mobile Revolution

This is the post in which I attempt to predict the future. A lot of what I say here may be proven wrong in the next decade or two, but since I do not posses any precognitive powers, that is to be expected. Some other stuff may be fairly controversial, but bear with me.

These are the final years of the desktop computer as we know it. This has been a forgone conclusion for several years now. The sales of laptops and tablets overtook those of desktops sometime around 2006 so this is not a new thing. I think I have posted this particular chart several times before and these numbers don’t lie:

Apple Desktop vs Laptop Sales

Slowly but surely the public is turning their back on the venerable PC tower, and embracing the sleek and mobile notebooks, laptops and tablets. The only environments where the desktops still reign supreme are corporate cubicle farms, and basements of hard core gamers. Which is probably where computer manufacturers will focus in the next few years. Beige boxes for the office, and blinged out gamer machines for hobbyists. General purpose home PC is swiftly becoming a relic of the past and such machines will soon be hard to find. Unfortunately the corporate world and the gaming community are nowhere near being safe harbors.

The company I currently work for only owns two desktop computers. One is hooked up to a projector in the conference room, and the other one is stationed at the front desk. Everyone else has laptops. Those of us who are expected to work from the office (administrative staff, it geeks, etc..) have regular desks with large monitors and docking stations, but we are encouraged to take our machines home. Sometimes during big winter snowstorms we forward our office phones to our cells and all work from home. Of course this particular company was ahead of the curve – they have been using laptops for ages now because most of the employees work at the client locations and need computers that can be picked up and transported easily. More and more companies go that way and opt for laptop + docking station rather than a bulky desktop these days.

Gaming circles would have been a safe harbor if it wasn’t for the fact that most major game studios are moving away from PC as their primary platform and focusing on consoles instead. You can try to deny it, but it would be futile. You have seen the signs, and so did I. It is not coincidence that a lot of new games come out without exclusive PC features such as dedicated multiplayer servers. It is not coincidence why most new games look and play the way they do. Do you know why the New Vegas strip in Fallout was divided into 3 zones separated by loading screens? Because modern consoles did not have enough resources to render all the wandering NPC’s and blinkenlights. Most modern games are made for consoles first, and then ported to PC. Just a few short years ago, this was the other way around.

If you don’t believe me, just check the recent tech news and you will see all the signs. Just recently EA Games announced that PC Gamers are not welcome to their gigantic Battlefield 3 tournament. That does send a clear message, doesn’t it? I can’t say I like this trend, but I can’t deny it anymore. This is happening. Desktop gaming will become niche market for experimental artsy games, niche interests, competitive RTS stuff and mainstream MMO’s. All of which will not need beefed up hardware and will all be playable on mid-range laptops. Gaming PC will fade away into history.

Mainstream consoles will be soon to follow. I honestly believe we only have one, maybe two more console generations to look forward too. Why? Because console is an unwieldy box that needs to be hooked up to your TV with a mess of wires. It will stick out like a sore thumb in a world populated by tablets, smart phones and ultra-thin notebooks. In a world where most of your data lives in a cloud, and most of the work can be done with mobile devices, tying your gaming hobby to a static brick that can’t be picked up and moved to another room at a whim will be unacceptable.

They are not going to be alone though. Classic folding laptop will probably be on it’s way out too by then. For a few years now market analysts predicted that before the end of the decade, the tablets and mobile devices will overtake regular laptop sales. Here is a projection from 2010 that shows tablets trumping desktop sales, with laptops still in the lead:

Laptop, Tablet and PC Sales Projections

Not everyone is that optimistic – some factions predict death of the laptop as we know it is inevitable. I think they are right, though I’m not sure about the timeline. I think most big hitters industry realize this, and take steps to prepare for this transition. We have already seen Apple building touch-friendly interfaces into OSX Lion. Microsoft is following with their Metro apps. The big shift is coming, and they don’t want to be swept away and forgotten.

Mobile hardware in smart phones and tablets is rapidly catching up with the low end PC/laptop hardware. All the new phones run dual core CPU’s and the clock speeds are rising with the Moore’s law as expected. Our mobiles can already do most of the stuff our desktops and laptops can. That gap is becoming smaller, and smaller. Here are the sure signs of laptop apocalypse:

  1. Apple releasing fully functional iOS version of XCode
  2. Microsoft redesigning office to use Metro interface exclusively

I can also see console-like gaming controllers being made for the iPad. Think about it – you already can hook these up to your big screen TV using a HDMI adapter cable. When these devices catch up to consoles spec-wise, they will swiftly replace them. Why? Because it will give you options – play on the couch in front of the big screen, or while sitting on a lawn chair in your back yard.

Somewhere along the way we will find some new emergent i/o paradigms for these new mobile devices. Perhaps eye tracking? Perhaps brainwave capture interface? Subvocalization? Galvanic skin response? Who knows. Chances are that in decade and a half, we will have a much better input mechanism for mobiles than multi-touch screens. I’m thinking HUD Glasses like in Halting State or contacts + wearables like in Rainbow’s End.

Needless to say, this is a very interesting time to live in. I will miss my gaming PC when it becomes obsolete, but I am excited to see how ubiquity of powerful mobile computing will reshape our lives. Do you agree with these predictions? What do you think will happen in the next 15-20 years? Let me know in the comments.

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15 Responses to Mobile Revolution

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Always have to wonder what aspect of the modern world is going to become the thing I’m a dinosaur about when I’m old. Liking my big black box of a computer might be it…

    Just seems like you’re always going to get more power for your money in the larger form factor, and more ability to tinker. Seems like going down the road of tablets and mobile devices is going to go hand in hand with increasingly locked down hardware and walled garden “eco-systems” of app stores, turning computers into appliances rather than general purpose tools.

    That, and I like the interface – big screen, keyboard, mouse… I don’t want to mush at touchscreen buttons with my fingers when they can be resting on top of things on a desk. But maybe they’re just in the infancy of interacting with the new stuff and it’ll get easier.

    I’d be all over some future-vision computing, where a chip implanted in my head picks up commands from my thoughts, and outputs directly into my visual cortex. I just don’t feel like the current trend is moving us any closer.

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  2. I have a desktop that I pulled out of storage that runs a pirated copy of Windows7 mainly just so I could see what was so cool about Windows7. I have my laptop that I take everywhere, it is a little bit larger as a budget laptop… but it works for me and allows me to watch porn in bed… which is why 95% of the people probably bought their laptops :D

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  3. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Funny factoid, my smartphone has faster processor than my first gaming PC.
    Another factoid, I haven’t had a desktop PC in more than 4 years.
    Nevertheless I feel sad, maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I loved the big box on my table. And I would be sad to see it go away, all the consoles will never compare to a PC, I just hate the idea of that locked down and neutered system replacing proper computers.
    Until my entertainment is implanted in my brain, I will always prefer a regular PC or laptop over various mobile devices.

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  4. MrJones GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Do you agree with these predictions?

    What do you think will happen in the next 15-20 years?
    He who knows is to become the richest man on the planet

    Im not sure about the netbook predicitions in the infographic. Netbooks are kinda crappy, and people only buy them because they are lighter than 14 inch laptops. Once all laptops become “ultrabooks” (that means as thin as an macbook air) nobody will think of buying a device with such a useless screensize.
    Im pretty sure the tablet bar will eat all of the netbook bar!

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  5. road UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    I think you’re right about the advent of new technologies, but wrong about the demise of old ones. Radio is still alive and well, after all. The charts you showed are expressed in percentages, but I’m willing to bet that the total number of devices sold is increasing — meaning that, for example, Desktop sales may be holding steady, but more and more people are buying laptops. So, my prediction is that during the next 2-3 decades people will continue to use Desktop computers for stationary work, and laptops for mobile computing. Sure, there will be an explosion of mobile devices used for basic consumption and communication, but nothing beats a keyboard for text-entry and nothing ever will . I don’t understand why every new device-category has to be a something-killer. Video didn’t kill radio. Cable TV didn’t kill the networks. Streaming video didn’t kill cable. Cell-phones didn’t kill landlines. I can only think of a few technologies that have been killed and that’s mostly because of changing data-formats (e.g. records, cassette tapes). The only other example I can think of is the telegraph. But I predict that in 20-30 years there will be lots of desktops and laptops and smartphones and tablets and all kinds of other stuff… all co-existing.

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  6. first of: PERCENTAGES! (but thats what “road” allready said)
    next: i own a desktop pc and saw no need to change anything about it in the last 3 years. I didn’t even upgrade the hardware and am still able to run most games pretty decent.
    On the other hand, during this time, i bought a “nettop” (for beeing my media-server at home), an android-smartphone, an arm-based netbook-thingy (Toshiba AC100, because it was about 70€ on Ebay and it just rocks after adjusting some parts of the crappy default-software. Others would have bought a tablet-pc-thingy, but i just kinda like beeing able to write text.) and some more stuff (i.e. rented some server and cloud-things).
    Why? Because these things are NEW! I didn’t have these at before (ok, a bit unfair, i had some self-built micro-ATX Nettop-like things with VIA-CPU before that played the media-server-role and i kinda replaced my atom-netbook with the android/arm one).
    So i think that it’s natural that we see more sold smartphones/netbooks/nettops/smartbooks/whatever, simply people will allways want more to buy things they don’t allready own then they want to buy the big, grey box the allready have AGAIN.

    Does this mean there will be the same amount of big grey boxes in 10 or 20 years? I simply don’t know. But i still think PC has been a dying platform in the media for the last 20 years at least and it will keep this status for another long period. Simply because having big screens, lots of connectors, swap-/upgrade-/affordable hardware, keyboards/mice are some tricks that are not so easily replicated on mobile platforms.

    BTW: did i mention i still love having my smartphone/arm-netbook as an ADDITION to my stationary PC? :D

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    I agree. I am a big fan of large monitors and large, ergonomic keyboards. I love my MacBook but I just can’t seem to be able to do any serious work on it without mouse, keyboard and a full size monitor. It is great for casual messing around, browsing the web, or writing quick blog drafts while away from my desk.

    Most of my work is done at my desk though and that’s where my desktop lives.

    @ Travis McCrea:

    There we go. This explains why laptops are overtook desktops in sales. :P

    @ Liudvikas:

    Same here. I will probably continue buying desktops until they stop selling them. If PC gaming goes away completely I will simply just do away with Windows and run some other OS on them. :)

    @ MrJones:

    Yep, I agree. I think the notebook bar will be chomped from both sides – by tablets, and by laptops becoming ultra-thin like you said.

    @ road:

    Radio is still around but it has changed – these days people mostly listen to radio in their cars. Some people also bring portable radios to work, but it is becoming almost exclusively a blue collar thing since white collar office workers can just stream music from the internet.

    Streaming TV has not killed cable yet, but it still may. Three or four of my co-workers have cancelled their cable subscriptions in the past year or two in lieu of Netflix subscription. I still pay for my cable, but I often wonder why since the only thing I usually watch is Adult Swim in the evenings. I basically just keep my subscription so that I can watch the shows I like via Xfinity streaming service. Though I could probably get that elsewhere.

    Cable networks know this and this is why they are pulling their shows from streaming services like Hulu or Netflics and try to limit the amount of streaming with bandwidth caps. I really don’t see cable TV surviving the next decade in the current form. It won’t go away, but it will have to change somehow.

    Cell phones didn’t kill land lines because most people who already have land lines don’t bother to cancel them. I don’t actually know anyone below the age of 40 who has a land line in their house (unless they still live with their parents). Everyone has a cell phone now, so a land line is redundant and no one ever feels like getting one installed. Especially when every single cable service in US offers you voip service bundled with their TV/Internet package. Hell, when my work moved to a new office, we ditched copper and got voip phones. Land lines are slowly but surely dying and becoming nothing more than DSL connection providers.

    Similarly desktops – they are becoming a niche product. The only people who still buy them are big companies, PC gamers and geeks like us. It is a niche product – just like land lines and radios.

    But I guess you are right – they will stick around just like land lines – because they are useful, comfortable and well suited to stationary work. Personally I prefer working on a PC than on a latop / tablet.

    And I agree that it will be really hard to beat keyboard – it is the ultimate text input device right now.

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    I agree. That said, keyboards and large monitors can be easily plugged into a laptop. That’s actually what I’m using right now. I have a large-ish Dell laptop that I use like a desktop here at work. Every morning I connect 3 things into it: USB hub, VGA cable and power. It lets me work on a large 21″ screen, use Microsoft Elite split keyboard and a wireless logitech mouse for full comfort. At the end of the day I still have to option of unplugging it, folding it up and taking it home in a bag in case I need to do some work on the weekend for example.

    So comfort is not necessarily something that desktops have going for them. You can turn a laptop into a fully functional “desktop” replacement quite easily via a docking station.

    Main selling points of desktops are:

    – price
    – extensibility and ease of upgrade
    – raw power (you can always overclock them more thanks to better cooling systems available)

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  8. Luke Maciak wrote:

    I agree. That said, keyboards and large monitors can be easily plugged into a laptop. That’s actually what I’m using right now. I have a large-ish Dell laptop that I use like a desktop here at work. Every morning I connect 3 things into it: USB hub, VGA cable and power. It lets me work on a large 21″ screen, use Microsoft Elite split keyboard and a wireless logitech mouse for full comfort. At the end of the day I still have to option of unplugging it, folding it up and taking it home in a bag in case I need to do some work on the weekend for example.

    So comfort is not necessarily something that desktops have going for them. You can turn a laptop into a fully functional “desktop” replacement quite easily via a docking station.

    Of course you can. I never said you couldn’t.
    But beeing able to do so, doesn’t mean that you do. I see it at work, where more and more often people work just with one small laptop-screen where i (who uses 2 big, high-resolution screens and for each a dozen virtual desktops) would just get frustrated.
    What about connecting multiple screens? Sure, this is not impossible at all, but noone does at the moment (and currently most hardware is even limited to one single VGA-connector. Improving that is indeed something i am looking for in new devices).
    Docking-stations are another topic. I once owned a pretty decent one for my _really_ old Siemens-Scenic Notebook (that had a Pentium 2 CPU with 300MHz i think) and since then i’ve seen only about 2 in real life (one at home at a fellow geek for his thinkpad). So if those people aren’t using docks, what are they doing? (Dis-)Connecting every cable on each own, then changing desktop-settings (screen gone, move windows, screen appeared, move windows, big screen should be default?) and then they have lots of cables on the desk (ok, since i am forced to use a iMac at work, this last thing is equally ugly here).

    Yes there are a lot things where its positive to have a PC that you can pick up and carry arround. But i really don’t see it beeing used for everything.
    I really wish i had real statistics about usage of desktop/mobile and not about sold devices. :-/

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Good point. But yeah, I’m basically making half assed predictions based on anecdotal evidence. Hard data would be useful. :)

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  10. SapientIdiot UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Much as i too hate to admit it, PC Gaming is dying. I downloaded RAGE yesterday, and man am i glad i decided to try it before forking over $60 for it. It doesn’t even render textures properly on the PC. Its like they released the PC port without even testing it on PC hardware.

    One somewhat positive aspect to the consolizing of the industry is that my laptop runs most new games fine despite it not being near the listed minimum system requirement. Its 1.8ghz, with a Geforce 8600, but it runs deus ex human revolution just fine, it can even run New Vegas with the CPU underclocked to 1ghz (because otherwise i fear it will catch on fire).

    I always thought desktops would be around forever, because you could always get more power with a desktop (and at less cost), but the market has spoken.

    I think cloud gaming, like ‘OnLive’ is going to be the new thing. I’ve tried it out a little bit, and games run incredibly well. I’m hoping that the fact that cloud systems can have incredible power will lead to graphics and maps not getting watered down like they where as you pointed out in New Vegas.

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  11. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    @ SapientIdiot:
    Speaking of OnLive, perhaps a bit off-topic… I have not tried it (wrong part of the world, and I’m not a gamer) but I see a problem with it. There’s a tradeoff in choosing a buffer size, between latency and dropout resistance. You can’t have a lower latency than the theoretical maximum time the stream may drop out without affecting the image. If the connection can handle a packet drop of 50 ms, than your latency can’t be lower than that. And that, I think, is OnLive’s biggest weakness.

    But wait, I hear you say, isn’t the same true for any kind of online game? Well, yes and no. In regular online games, all rendering is of course done locally, so the local game instance can predict where the opponents etc are headed and fix any mistakes retrospectively. In OnLive, packet drop can’t be compensated for in the same way and will necessarily lead to video and audio stutter and/or other glitches. Increasing the buffer size isn’t too appealing either as it will increase the lag between a button press and the audiovisual feedback.

    OnLive may work for some, but I don’t see it replacing traditional gaming on consoles and computers.

    And Luke, as for consoles going away, I’m not too sure about that. I don’t think mobile platforms will be able to render graphics suitable for a big screen in quite a few years yet. Portable devices will compete for the same leisure time, however. I don’t think we’ll see the next generation consoles in a couple of years, either. Only a gradual improvement of the existing ones. Releasing a brand new console while a recession is still going on is not a good business strategy, especially if there are any doubts about backward compatibility.

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  12. Shane Simmons Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    @ road:

    The charts you showed are expressed in percentages, but I’m willing to bet that the total number of devices sold is increasing — meaning that, for example, Desktop sales may be holding steady, but more and more people are buying laptops.

    I was thinking exactly that. In my household, we have two desktop computers (one running Mythbuntu), one laptop, one netbook, and one smartphone. On pure numbers, we’re apparently moving toward the mobile side; in reality, we’ve got four more functioning computing devices than I’ve ever owned at one time.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ SapientIdiot:

    I think you might be right. I think games as a product will cease to exist, and instead we will buy them as a subscription service. Everything is pointing in that direction.

    And yes, I actually don’t mind the consolization when it comes to hardware upgrade mill. My computer is a few years old now, and I can still play everything on high. Back in the day, my computer would already be obsolete by the time I bought it, cause I could never afford the top of the line hardware.

    @ nitro2k01:

    I don’t really know how OnLive works, but I think that the network latency can be mitigated by caching. In a truly single player games you don’t really need to talk to the server that much. You can cache all of the textures, and data on the client side ahead of time. Hell, you can probably also cache game logic – deliver a minimal, stripped down client that will run from a cache folder and in userspace. The client then fetches game data as you play. Granted, I’m guessing here but I think there are practical ways of delivering single player games via streaming. I sort of envision them to work kinda like WoW client. The whole thing is huge – close to a gig these days. But you can start playing as soon as you have roughly 20% of the client downloaded. The game just streams and loads data as you play, which the client download continues in the background. Yeah, it is kinda laggy, and whenever you zone the loading screens are extra long – but it works. And it gets faster, and faster as the client data trickles down to you down the pipe.

    Then again, I might be wrong. Perhaps OnLive is exactly the way you say in which case yeah – that model probably won’t scale well.

    As for console upgrades – there will definitely be a new generation at some point. The ruthless upgrade mill has slowed down recently, but Moore’s law is still in effect. I just don’t see current gen staying relevant for longer than 2-3 more years. Consoles are not easily upgradeable, so they would have to release brand new models with new specs. It wouldn’t really make sense to keep the current gen names if they could just call them PS4 and Xbox 9000 (or whatever). Easier to market, easier for customer to keep track of, etc..

    Yes they will probably wait till the economy gets better to do this, but it will happen eventually.

    @ Shane Simmons:

    You have to remember that we techies skew these statistics because we don’t retire old hardware as easily. Most of us has an old desktop or two running headless in the basement or in some corner as an in house-server, or working as the living-room “youtube computer” or performing some other specialized task.

    Most people don’t do that. They hold on to a computer until it is too slow to use, then throw it out (or give it to one of us) and buy a new one. They never reformat their machines, they never reinstall their OS, and they never actually consider using computers to specialized tasks. Most non-techies I talk to have a single primary, all purpose laptop they use for everything, sometimes an iPad they use for browsing/reading, smart phones and a stack of old computers gathering dust somewhere in a closet. They don’t keep the old hardware running like we do. :)

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  14. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    Luke, the idea of OnLive is that sound and graphics are generated remotely and broadcasted as a video stream. It’s their idea of killing piracy, as well as the need for console upgrades, for good, I guess.

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  15. SapientIdiot UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    To clarify about onlive: Its basically just a video stream, you don’t download anything other then the client for onlive itself (which installed on my computer is around 8mb). All that’s transmitted to the server is control input, and you get a 720p video stream of the game itself, everything as far as rendering, textures and all that stuff is done on the server, there isn’t anything to cache locally. Even the onlive interface is just a video stream.

    It would have issues on slower internet connections, but from what i’ve seen (and I’m constantly using torrents or other bandwidth intensive things), its really a non issue on an average connection (i have a basic cable connection, about 15mbps).

    Right now the only disadvantage to onLive verses running a game native is that you can tell it’s a stream at times (just like a 720p stream on youtube). But i think the advantage of being able to run games on pretty much any computer hardware evens it out. For example you could run Deus Ex HR on anything that will stream video, even if its an older laptop with a crummy integrated graphics card. As time goes on and bandwidth levels increase, the quality of streaming will improve.

    I guess its sort of hard to picture until you check it out, that was sort of what got me to trying it in the first place really, i just wanted to see how it worked. That and I was hoping i might be able to get it working in WINE (i couldn’t). But hopefully sometime soon they will release a Linux client. Which is another benefit to this type of cloud gaming, making something cross platform isn’t an issue at all once a client is released for a given platform, ALL of the games already available can be run. They already have support for Android tablets and the iPad apparently.

    I highly recommend checking it out just to get an idea of how neat the technology is. They have most of the games available as free trials. I’d suggest War Hammer 40,000: Space Marine.

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