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October 19, 2009

Can Mobile Devices Replace PCs?

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

The mobile industry has long imagined that mobile devices may one day displace the PC for many consumer activities. The issue is how much displacement is possible. The answers are crucial for any number of reasons, including demand for many products ranging from broadband access and devices to applications and revenue streams based on those applications.

For now, the vast majority of consumers prefer the PC to a mobile device for most Internet-based activities. But things are changing as smartphones gain wider adoption, as operating systems become more capable and smartphone browsers acquire more of the attributes of PC-based browsers.
Mobile experiences will grow as they take advantage the three things Forrester (News - Alert) considers to be the killer advantages of mobile devices: immediacy, simplicity, and context, according to analyst Julie Ask.
The success of mobile services in pulling people away from the PC will depend on how conveniently they deliver these three things, she says. Basically, users will opt for mobile-based interactions rather than PC-based interactions when the mobile experiences are more convenient.
When it comes to mobile services, there is convenience when there is value to the immediacy of the information or service, tasks are simple to execute and there is context such as location.
But there are limits to how much substitution of PCs and fixed broadband is possible. In principle, any single user might be able to substitute a wireless connection for a fixed connection, using a data dongle. But there are many practical barriers.
That user would have to live with an order of magnitude – or more – less headroom in terms of data usage caps. Such a person would typically live in a dwelling without other users, or where all the other users have their own broadband access.
The most-significant application restriction is that a mobile user would not typically be a heavy consumer of video content.
Looked at from a system perspective, complete displacement of fixed broadband connections by mobile is impractical. Consider today’s high-definition television content that demands 6 Mbps to 9 Mbps of continuous connectivity. In such cases a single subscriber could consume the entire capacity of a WiMAX (News - Alert) or 3G cell sector.
Beyond those limitations, mobile form factors, battery life issues, input and output issues as well as browser issues will limit the ability to fully substitute mobile devices for PCs, and mobile broadband for fixed broadband.
Though mobile browsers are getting better, it has been difficult, to this point, to support full-featured browsers handling Javascript, CSS (News - Alert), Flash, SVG, video and audio. That is starting to change. Mozilla, for example, is readying a full mobile version of Firefox that runs on mobiles.
That will help. But we likely still are looking at differentiated mobile and fixed Internet experiences, each complementing the other modes.
Fixed connections to TVs and PCs will provide one set of advantages. Mobile connections to laptops and notebooks will provide another and different set of experiences. Smartphones with broadband will encompass yet a third set of applications and use cases.

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erin Harrison

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