Back in the early days of handheld devices, Microsoft dubbed its contender the “Pocket PC” and, indeed, designed it to emulate a small version of a Windows PC, because the PC was the main — often the only — way to perform digital tasks. My, how things have changed.

Over the last seven years, since the introduction of the iPhone, the PC has gradually been dethroned by the smartphone (and to a lesser extent, by the tablet) as the key digital device. PC sales have fallen significantly in recent years, racking up their worst annual sales ever last year, while smartphone and tablet sales have soared. Almost all of the energy that developers once put into making software for laptops and desktops is now devoted to making mobile apps and mobile websites.

PCs aren’t going away anytime soon. The standard laptop, with a large screen, built-in keyboard and roomy touchpad, is still superior to smartphones and pure tablets for doing more complex tasks, and for doing several things at once. Tablets are catching up on some of these features, but a machine like the MacBook Air still beats them for many scenarios, and that includes even Microsoft’s Surface line of hybrid PC-tablets. The MacBook Air and some other PCs now even boast tablet-like battery life.

But just in the past month, it has become clear that a serious effort has begun to merge the smartphone and the PC, or at least to bring some of the more familiar features of the surging smartphone to the tanking PC. We are seeing the start of what I expect to be a long-term trend to make PCs look and act more like smartphones, and to bring to the PC some of the functions of the phone.

It’s essentially the reverse of the old “Pocket PC” idea.

These newest efforts are being driven by the two big smartphone-platform owners, Apple and Google, each of which also has a stake in PCs — Apple with the Mac, of course, and Google with its more limited Chromebook laptops, which have been gaining popularity.

At each company’s big developer conference last month, new features were announced that move toward this smartphone-PC blend.

At Apple’s WWDC event, the company announced a set of forthcoming features, called Continuity, which make the Mac a companion to a nearby iPhone. The features — which will be present in the next Mac OS, called Yosemite and due out this fall — include the ability to use a Mac to make or receive phone calls via an iPhone.

A Mac conducting a phone call via a nearby iPhone

A Mac conducting a phone call via a nearby iPhone

Another part of Continuity, called Handoff, lets you start something on an iOS device — an iPhone or iPad — and finish it on a Mac, or vice versa. You could, for instance, start an email on an iPhone, and the Mac will display a special icon that lets you resume that same email on the computer, right where you left off. Or you could start writing an email or document on the Mac and finish it on the iPhone or iPad.

There was more. In Yosemite, standard SMS text messages, not just Apple’s proprietary iMessages, show up on the Mac. You can even send new texts from the Mac. And the Mac can now automatically turn your nearby iPhone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, without touching the phone.

Even the design of Yosemite looks a lot like the design of iOS, right down to the icons and a new Today panel in notifications.

A few weeks later, Google held its competing event, called I/O, and announced its own phone-PC blending features. It said its forthcoming version of Android, so far just called L, would feature “one design for mobile, desktop and beyond.”

Among the new features that will unite its Android and Chrome OS platforms: You’ll be able to unlock a Chromebook with a nearby Android phone. Android’s Google Now feature will come to Chromebooks. And, as with the Mac, Chromebooks will be able to handle calls and texts.

Most importantly, some Android apps will simply run on Chromebooks, though the company said that effort was in its “early days.” And the Web apps that are the mainstay of the Chrome OS will look and feel like Android apps.

Both companies had taken some smaller steps in the past to merge the phone and PC. For instance, Google’s Chrome browser, which was then purely a PC program, became a key Android app, as well. And Apple gave its Macs a phone-style notification panel, and even a full-screen alternate way of organizing and opening Mac programs, called Launchpad, that looks a lot like a huge iPhone screen.

The two rivals have a strong business reason for merging their mobile and desktop platforms: They want to keep you in their ecosystems, in their worlds, whatever device you’re using. And even for a computer pioneer like Apple, the key product in the ecosystem is now the smartphone, not the computer.

So, how far will the merger go? Will PCs and phones one day have just one phone-like operating system? I think there’s a good chance of that, but there are a couple of obstacles.

A Mac automatically creating an iPhone hotspot

A Mac automatically creating an iPhone hotspot

First, mobile apps would have to be written in such a way that, when installed on a laptop, they display the richer functionality laptops offer, and which laptop users expect. And even the OS itself would have to behave somewhat differently on a laptop. Google made it clear that it is heading down this path; Apple not so much, though the latter company already has a strong record of allowing apps to look and work differently on tablets and phones.

Second, both Google and Apple are acutely aware that a third competitor tried to fully merge a phone-style user interface and accompanying apps with a traditional desktop OS, and ran into trouble. That company is Microsoft.

As is well known, Microsoft’s Windows 8 included both a mobile-like section with touch-centric, full-screen apps, and the traditional Windows desktop, with apps better suited for use with the mouse and keyboard. It didn’t go over well with consumers, and Microsoft has since modified the system to bring back features like the desktop start button, and to add features like the task bar to the mobile-style start screen. You can even now skip the mobile interface and boot directly into old-style Windows.

But I don’t see Microsoft giving up on the idea, partly because, unlike Apple and Google, it is strongest in PCs, and much weaker in phones and standard tablets. Its Windows Phone and desktop Windows operating systems are growing closer. Microsoft may have had the right idea, and just executed it poorly.

So Google and Apple are doing it differently, for now retaining separate operating systems for their mobile and desktop clients, but finding subtler ways to blend them.

It may be unfolding slowly, and with some hiccups. But I believe that the merger of the smartphone and the PC will roll on.



9 comments
NormM
NormM

On iOS the same app runs on phone and tablet, but it actually has two different user interfaces.  If it ran on a PC also, it would have a third interface.  So the capabilities are converging across platforms, but the interfaces remain distinct.  And depending on what you're doing, one of the platforms' interfaces may be much more convenient.

4t0m1c4
4t0m1c4

I build my own pc's, like most enthusiasts. Until that device/component market is miniaturised, I will continue, even if my OS is unsupported. So I think the current trend in marketing mobile like interfaces will pass (again).

Lee C.
Lee C.

The absolutely mind-boggling thing is we will soon have phone form-factor SOCs with on-die support for multiple(!) 4K displays, wireless peripherals, and networking along with the necessary PnP/TDP to power the majority of individual consumer and office worker tasks. This SOC evolution will allow the phone form factor to take a huge chunk out of the market for desktop and (especially) laptop computing. 


OTOH I see the big challenge will be moving our software base, thinking, and architecture beyond its current incumbent phone/tablet/PC/server one-size fits all to embrace a true network of appropriately specific light-weight components. Ever vendor is going to jockey to maintain their incumbency, so it will be a long painful process (for users e.g. Windows-8).

ViewRoyal
ViewRoyal

"Will PCs and phones one day have just one phone-like operating system?"


That is like saying: a person who has an electric car for light tasks, and a diesel truck for heavy work, wants a single fuel that will work on both vehicles.


The  electric car and the diesel truck have very different engines, and are optimized for different tasks.


It is unrealistic to expect one operating system and a single version of each application to work on both desktop machines and mobile devices.


Even just considering the different interface requirements, and forgetting about the huge hardware differences, a UI that works nicely on a 5 inch multi-touch screen won't work well on a 27 inch monitor controlled by keyboard and mouse/trackpad... or the other way around.


Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn't realize this, and trying to shoehorn a mobile operating system into a PC, and vice versa, has proven to be a futile experiment.

Peter Fretty
Peter Fretty

The real focus here should be on how people are leveraging and utilizing technology to access and analyze data. And it's the user experience that ultimately drives this evolution.  The seamless integration and the resulting benefits when converging all these devices among many others is really at the heart of what Cisco calls the Internet of Everything. 


Peter Fretty 

Terrence Martineau
Terrence Martineau

The PC and smartphones are not merging... this is the mistake that MS made and why Windows 8 has been soundly rejected... what's actually happening is that their use is being seamlessly integrated... the PC is becoming an extension of the new 'main computing device' (the smartphone). A PC is now an accessory for your phone when you need more horse power an more detailed, longer term work. Because difference of sized and input methods there UX for each needs to be tuned for each... keyboard and mouse input needs a different GUI than direct touch... incredibly MSs UX designers completely missed this.

steven sprague
steven sprague

 The key to make this possible is not the interface or the OS but a shift in the networking models. We need to abandon the LAN and move to a secure device identity model based on trusted computing standards and the Trusted execution environments. A shift away from password models and into the direction of device ID in tamper proof storage.  Mobile is not the size or OS or the buttons it is the shift to a model of computing where services are tied to the users device not the Wire they are attached to.


Steven Sprague

CEO

Rivetz Corp.


BassMonkey
BassMonkey

The most important PC/Mobile feature from Microsoft will role out this summer with Windows Phone 8.1: The ability to create a single application that can run across PC/Tablet/Mobile/Xbox.

Terrence Martineau
Terrence Martineau

Also cloud changes things in a big way too.. PC is no longer needed as the hub of things...