by Larry Magid
Last Monday, the world learned about two seemingly unrelated events. Facebook purchased Instagram and word got out that Jack Tramiel had died.
Tramiel in 1977 introduced the Commodore Pet as one of the first personal computers around the time Radio Shack debuted the TRS-80 and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak unveiled the Apple II. In 1982, Tramiel’s Commodore 64 was one of the least expensive powerful PCs on the market and one of the most popular.
Tramiel’s passing didn’t get nearly as much press coverage as Facebook’s decision to spend $1 billion to buy a startup whose only accomplishment was a single mobile application called Instagram. The company has no revenue and doesn’t even let you view its photos on its website, though it does let you share them on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and other websites. The service lets you view your and other people’s photographs on its iPhone and Android app.
Post PC era
Tramiel’s passing and the fact that the week’s most talked about piece of software doesn’t run on a PC is a reminder of something another PC pioneer said at the All Things Digital Conference in June, 2010. That’s when Steve Jobs declared us to be in the post-PC era.
Jobs made that pronouncement while talking about the iPad, which he was promoting as an alternative to the PC. But while the iPad may indeed play a role in getting some people to jettison or at least spend less time on their PCs, I remain convinced that the biggest challenge to the PC for now is the device Jobs introduced a few years earlier — the smartphone.
Almost everywhere I go, I see people staring at their iPhones and Android phones, sending and reading text messages, checking their email, playing games and, yes, taking photos.
A couple of other passings — Kodak’s exit from the digital camera market and Cisco’s cancelation of the Flip camera — are likely related to the explosive use of smartphones for photo-taking. They may not have the quality lenses of a good digital camera, but they are certainly more handy and — as Instagram and other mobile photo apps have proven — it’s very cool to be able to instantly share those photos with friends both near and far.
It’s no wonder that smartphones are now outselling PCs, according to IDC. BI Intelligence predicts that smartphone sales will exceed 1.5 billion by 2016 compared to only 350 million PCs.
There are a lot of things that people are now doing on their phones that used to require a PC. Neal Augenstein, a colleague at CBS News affiliate WTOP radio in Washington DC, pioneered the use of an iPhone to both record and edit radio news broadcasts. “It’s revolutionizing the way I gather news,” he said in an interview. He also carries an iPad that he mostly uses for typing and tweeting but says that he hardly ever uses his laptop.
And now there’s even an app for doing our taxes. TurboTax for iPhone and Android not only lets you fill out the return, but uses the phone’s camera to snap a photo of your W2s to record the data. And speaking of money, my photo-equipped smartphone has relieved me of the one reason I used to have to visit my local bank. Now, instead of driving to a branch, I use the bank’s app to take a picture of checks that I’m sent and “phone in” my deposits.
Phones trump PCs in developing world
Phones are especially dominant in the developing world, where very few consumers have personal computers or wired Internet access. Just about everyone has some type of mobile phone and we’re seeing an explosion in smartphone penetration. Texting is far more common than email and people typically use their phone to access the Internet.
Phones can’t do everything well. Their small screens provide a paltry view compared to a PC or a tablet and are not nearly big enough to display an onscreen keyboard suitable for touch typing. Some say the iPad’s virtual keyboard is adequate for word processing, but people I know who use it regularly to create documents typically use a case with a built-in physical keyboard. It’s hard to know if things will evolve in this direction, but I wonder if hotels will someday all have wireless keyboards and the ability to use the flat screen TV to view the output of our smart phones.
iPhone as a word processor?
I’m not suggesting that I would do this on a regular basis, but just to see if it worked, I connected the wireless Bluetooth keyboard that I bought for my iPad to my iPhone to write this paragraph using Pages, an iOS word processing app. It wasn’t the best word processing experience I’ve ever had, but it worked and might even be a reasonable solution for someone who has only an occasional need to create or edit documents.
This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News