It would be hard to imagine a world completely devoid of PCs. But as smartphones continue to skyrocket in popularity and some people have already abandoned their desktops in favour of their do-it-all handsets, rumblings of a PC-free future abound.
Phase 1: The cloud
As I look around my coffee shop, an array of mostly Apple laptops are browsing cloud-based social sites and services: About half are Facebook, the rest a spattering of Gmail, YouTube and Twitter.
In fact, of the dozens of LCD screens in my view, only one is displaying a UI not instantly recognisable as a web service, though I'm guessing AutoCAD. This lone creative professional is an important subject, and one I'll come back to later.
Whether they realise it or not, the typical PC user has already embraced the cloud, storing their data on remote servers so it is accessible anywhere, from any device. Using services like Google Docs and Google Calendar when you own multiple net-connected devices is simply matter of convenience. Not needing offline storage of data is the first step in smartphone dominance.
Phase 2: Overcoming limitations
According to a study by ComScore, by December 2010 over 63 million people in the US owned a smartphone, and this number continues to grow. But despite their growing popularity and easy access to cloud-based data, there are a few limiting factors that make smartphones a secondary device to the PC.
For one, the screen real estate and tiny keyboards can make creating content feel quite limiting. Additionally, while smartphone processors are continually improving, they pale in comparison to PC powerhouses on the market.
Moore's law will take care of the latter to a certain extent. So to solve the screen and keyboard limitations, how about a docking smartphone? A docking smartphone could harness the built-in network connectivity and take advantage of data served from the cloud. It could use the handset's processor to drive desktop applications.
Over a year a Citrix and Open Kernel labs unveiled a reference design called "Nirvana Phone" that does just that. It was an interesting idea, and people wondered if and when it would come to fruition.
As a matter of fact, at this past CES, Motorola introduced the Atrix 4G, the first smartphone based on a dual-core processor, and the first docking smartphone, largely based on the original "nirvana phone" design. Early champions of the Atrix claim this could be a PC-killer, but I suspect this is merely a glimpse of what is to come.
The Atrix is a neat design, and an important concept, but is this really going to replace the PC? A major shortcoming is the inability to run any actual desktop applications beyond a web browser. I don't think anyone needs this technology in order to play Angry Birds full screen. What would be more exciting to me would be to run full-fledged desktop apps from a docked mobile handset.
Remember that lone AutoCAD designer in my café? He is a testament to the future of the PC. While the masses may eventually abandon PCs in favour of ultra-portable, cloud-based docking smartphones to read news, the creative professional will always need the power, offline storage and screen real estate of a PC.
Will the PC die completely? No. Will it replace the PC as most people's primary source of consuming the Internet? Eventually.