Google Claims Desktop Will Be Irrelevant In Three Years

Speaking at the Digital Landscapes Conference this week, Google vice president of Global Ad Operations, John Herlihy, made a rather surprising prediction regarding the future of desktops and laptops. These two types of devices (including netbooks) may be the Internet access points of choice for an overwhelming majority of people worldwide, but the Google exec believes both will be irrelevant in the near future.

"In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant," Herlihy said. "In Japan, most research is done today on smart phones, not PCs. Mobile makes the world’s information universally accessible. Because there’s more information and because it will be hard to sift through it all, that’s why search will become more and more important. This will create new opportunities for new entrepreneurs to create new business models – ubiquity first, revenue later."

Herlihy's 'ubiquity first' motto has an alarming turn-of-the-century ring to it and recalls a time when companies raked in investments based on how many eyeballs they were attracting even when they completely lacked a plan for becoming profitable. Herlihy's prediction that the desktop is about to become irrelevant (presumably followed in a few years by the laptop) is what's attracting most of the attention, however—but Herlihy is wrong.

Let's get some basic facts out of the way first. It's true that there are more laptop PCs sold worldwide than desktops, that this trend probably isn't going to reverse, and that smartphones/MIDs are going to be the initial (and possibly primary) Internet access points for millions
of people over the next ten years. Herlihy's points regarding the importance of mobile technology and the opportunities to innovate that surround the burgeoning market are smack on, but desktops and laptops aren't going anywhere no matter how we define "irrelevant." Google seems to be off in left field a bit on this one; other major tech companies we've spoken to (Intel, ARM, AMD, etc) all see the new markets opening up in netbooks, smartbooks, and ultimately MIDs and smartphones as complementary/additional revenue streams, not disruptive trends that could cannibalize existing products.

The reason why smartphones aren't going to make this sort of jump is (mostly) summarized in a single word: Ergonomics. Smartphones and hypothetical MIDs are limited to certain practical sizes; a mobile phone the size of one's head is impractical unless you can afford to hire a midget to carry it around for you. Keyboards can only be so big, screens can only display so much, and the entire gadget can only be so heavy. These factors function as a certain inherent limit on the degree to which smartphone-type devices can shove 'real' computers out of the way. The fact that more search is done on smartphones than on PCs in Japan doesn't demonstrate that other computing platforms are approaching irrelevancy, it simply demonstrates that the Japanese are running more searches in aggregate on these devices than on traditional computers. The clear importance of mobile devices does not prove the irrelevancy of other options.

Even if smartphones were magically as comfortable to use over sustained periods of time as a PC or laptop, there are two other titans to contend with—battery life and software design. We can safely assume that users will only migrate to mobile devices as they become comfortable with doing so. The speed with which that happens would at least correlate with the speed with which mobile solutions offer 'good enough' user experiences. That hasn't happened yet. Given that we haven't managed to design a perfect computer OS in thirty years, it's highly unlikely that anyone will magically stumble across the perfect mobile OS in three.

Finally, there's battery life, and it's by far the most intractable of the three. It's not hard to imagine devices that are more comfortable to use or sport better control interfaces, but battery life is a function of innate physical properties. Semiconductor manufacturers have sunk billions into better power control and low-power architectures precisely because it's proven easier to reduce the power consumption of a device's components than it has to increase battery life without driving up weight, price, or size. The components that drain the most power—high-quality screens, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G, etc, are precisely the components required to drive the hypothetical 'super' next-generation smartphones that would actually render desktops and notebooks irrelevant. Maybe one day, we'll actually have reduced component power consumption enough to run our Crysis-playing phones all day on just 1W of power—but it's not happening in the next three years.

We at Hot Hardware cheerfully predict that three and even five years from now, desktops and laptops will be just as relevant as they are today; mobile devices will have evolved and will complement existing Internet access technologies, not have supplanted them. We'll see who's right.