Phones starting to outsmart laptops

Last month, I attended a press conference by Palm and Microsoft where they rolled out their latest Treo 700wx smartphone running Microsoft’s Mobile OS. And yes, you heard correctly, Palm has teamed up with their former rival, Microsoft, to go head-to-head with RIM, although Palm will still offer their own operating system on some devices.

As sweet-looking as this new Treo may be, it wasn’t the product announcement which caught my attention, but what was said by Palm’s director of product development, Peter Skillman. He suggested that the smartphone will replace the laptop PC.

Am I shocked by this comment? Is this guy nuts? No, far from it. Not too long from now, smartphones will be the device of choice for mobile computing.

I’m not crawling as far out on a limb as you might think. Convergence has been both a buzz word and a holy grail in the industry for years now. Manufacturers are focused on taking all the basic technology we now use in more than one device and melding it together in one compact “smart” product. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this when provides live reports from Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January.

I’m reasonably sure the majority of people interested in mobile computing only want some very basic functionality from their laptops. Word processing, e-mail and Web access are pretty much all I would ever use one for. When you clear away all the sales hype, what really sells laptops is the portability.

So, if mobility is the main reason most of us would buy a laptop, why wouldn’t we jump at the chance to get a smartphone that can handle all those tasks, save us the cost of a separate cell phone and fit in our pocket?

Also consider the fact that all the most popular Microsoft applications are available on this Treo model: Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel. Sure, the screen is small now, but, in the future, we will see paper-thin flexible large screens which will unroll or unfold from the device. And frequent flyers will tell you it’s sure easier to carry one of these through customs than a laptop.

But what about those dinky little keyboards, you say? The same technology which enables the paper-thin fold-away screen will be used for a keyboard. In fact, we’ve had full-size folding keyboards for PDAs for some time now and a plethora of other approaches to the issue of portable keyboards — including an infrared version which projects the keys on a flat surface and tracks which keys you tap.

Experts, such as Eddie Chan at IDC Canada, agree this is the future of mobile computing. Mr. Chan points out that we are five to 10 years away from this. I’m hedging my bet just a wee bit because things can change fast and all this technology might well leapfrog right over smartphones and end up in a wrist watch, a pair of glasses or even a patch you slap on your arm.

While older generations may view this with a certain amount of doubt and suspicion, younger consumers will not even think twice about it. Mobility and being wired 24/7 is a natural state of being for them. Fifteen years from now we will be looking back at the laptop with the same nostalgia some of us have today for a manual Underwood typewriter.

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– Ducharme is editor of Reach him at

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