The latest smartphones are often billed as competition with the iPhone, but they may be poised to replace another device: the home computer.
There's no question that if you take apart a smartphone and a notebook you'll find the same components, said Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart. The modern smart is in many ways a personal computer. The question is what you can do with it.
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Motorola revealed a pair of docks for its Atrix phone. Resembling the Macbook Air, the laptop dock launches the Atrix into its very own desktop-like computing environment. Equipped with a keyboard, web browser and basic software, the dock also incorporates the functionality of the Atrix itself. Both the Atrix's Android applications and calling functionality can be used natively via the dock.
This approach to smartphone-as-PC isn't a new idea, said Greengart. Blackberry unveiled similar functionality last September with the Blackberry Playbook. A 7.6 tablet, the Playbook is equipped with the ability to link wirelessly to a Blackberry phone, allowing for easy access to the phone's internal email, calendar, address book, and messaging system.
As smartphones have become more advanced, the line between mobile phone and personal computer has blurred. Both the Atrix and Playbook appear to be evidence of a long-predicted convergence between phones and computers.
This, in turn, is giving consumers more choice in what devices they would like to use for their computing tasks. Smartphones have become powerful enough that you are able to replicate certain computing tasks on them, Greengart said. Activities such as checking email, browsing the Internet, and using web-based applications.
Canalys analyst Chris Jones notes that the smartphone is still inherently limited in many ways, largely because of its physical size. You are restricted with the user interface on a phone, whether because its touch only or has a small keyboard, he said. Even if you could do the same thing on both a PC and smartphone, I'm not sure you would want to. Because a smartphone is a device meant to fit in a pocket, it is an unlikely substitute for the personal computer and notebook.
Greengart points out another major difference between personal computers and smartphones -- the lack of a robust productivity suite like Microsoft Office. To date, the only device with a mobile version of Microsoft Office built in is the Windows Phone, which features altered versions of Word, Excel, One Note, and PowerPoint. These programs, however, must be used on the phone's 3.7-inch screen -- there is no equivalent to Motorola's dock. But the lack of an expansive productivity suite may not be a problem for most consumers. Not everyone needs to create a full version of PowerPoint, he said.
For these users, the usual smartphone offerings are enough, and tasks like spreadsheet creation and intensive video editing are less important. That hasn't stopped Apple from releasing a version of iMovie for iOS and developers like Path 36 from creating portable video editors. These applications, though limited, offer a range of a functionality formerly found only on desktop computers.
I don't know that one thing is replacing another, but rather a supplement and replacement for certain tasks, Greengart said, noting that high-end computers will always be needed for more advanced work.
Jones agreed, and placed the smartphone on a continuum of devices that never quite got around to replacing those that preceded them.
Just as a lot of people instead of buying a second [desktop] computer, bought a notebook, and instead of a second notebook bought a netbook, the smartphone is the next step, he said.
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