Will the smartphone replace the PC in three years?

It's the question to ask after the bold statement made yesterday by Google's John Herlihy. According to Silicon Republic, Herlihy told Digital Landscapes conference attendees that: "In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant. In Japan, most research is done today on smartphones, not PCs."

My answer is an easy "Yes" for desktops, assuming Herlihy meant desktop PCs. Mobile PCs will take longer -- not much, unless 3G radios come to be standard equipment on most laptops; that's for displacement, not irrelevance. Yesterday I asked Betanews readers: "Has your smartphone changed your life?" The smartphone most certainly will change your life if it displaces the PC. How much more dramatic will be the change whenever PCs should become irrelevant?

No doubt, plenty of Betanews readers will disagree with Herlihy's assertion. Great. Please share your opinions in comments. This is a topic deserving heated discussion, and it's one PC and handset manufacturers had better carefully watch. The winds of change are in the air, but will they blow slowly across the current computing landscape or quickly?

"The digital world is fundamentally different to the traditional business world," Herlihy told Digital Landscape attendees. "Things happen much faster, Websites spring up from nowhere, a video could be a YouTube hit in hours." He is absolutely right, and the social media boom is glaring example of how rapidly things can change in short order.

Before 2005, newspaper revenues remained high, while declining slowly. Fast forward four years and the industry started to rapidly collapse -- but, of course, not go away. According to a report released this week by PEW Internet, 94 percent of US Internet users get news online. Only 38 percent of Americans get news offline only -- and the numbers skew much higher for the old than the young.

Social media is a large part of the change, as Facebook and Twitter status messages, blogs and other sources augment or even replace traditional news sources -- all of it free and some of it supported by Google search keywords and related services. People take Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for granted, but these are all relatively new services released just beyond the time horizon of Herlihy's mobile prediction.

YouTube officially opened in November 2005; Google purchased the service less than a year later. Facebook opened to the public in 2006 and Twitter a few months later (I signed up for Twitter on Dec. 26, 2006). Most of the most popular or growing popular tools for community and self expression launched within the last four years: Disqus, FriendFeed, tumblr, Twine, Qik and USTREAM, among many, many others. New social sharing services seemingly appear every day. Google Buzz and Chatroulette are among the most recent.

Apple's iPhone released in June 2007. The supporting App Store -- now with more than 140,000 applications and 3 billion-plus downloads -- launched in July 2008. Google purchased Android in 2005, and the first supporting smartphone shipped in late 2008. In Android's first full year (2009), handset manufacturers sold 6.8 million smartphones, according to Gartner. Google released the Chrome Web browser in late 2008 and is already testing version 5. These are changes all occurring within just three years.

These technologies have dramatically reshaped cultures and societies across the planet. All of it happened in less than five years. For people clinging to the PC's importance, look around you at the rapid cloud services-driven social networking changes. The PC could easily be displaced that fast.

The pattern of technological displacement is centuries old and fairly consistent. Something new comes along and slowly erodes the existing technology. But pace picks up until there is a dramatic shift to the new from the old occurring within a short time span. Some older technologies continue for a time and disappear, while many others remain but in new niches. Some recent -- and not-too-hard-to-grasp -- examples:

  • Horse drawn carriages and trains
  • Trains and automobiles
  • Telegraphs and telephones
  • Mainframes and PCs

There are so many other examoples, but I'm trying to make a simple point not give a history lesson. Trains were displaced by autos in the United States but they didn't go away. PCs displaced mainframes, but they're still used as well. Landlines and wireless phones are near their dramatic changing point in many mature markets. Newspapers are in process of being displaced by Web content for PCs and mobile devices, but are likely to co-exist with them for a long time.

Three years -- most certainly five -- is not an unrealistic time horizon at all. Even if it proves wrong, Google is acting like change will come rapidly. Last month, Google CEO Eric Schmidt asserted the company would put mobile first -- yes, before the PC. There is no Windows monopoly on mobile handsets to stop Google, Apple or any other would-be mobile competitor from rapidly advancing. Cloud services, whether delivered by applications or browsers, promise anytime and anywhere access to anything.

I've blogged about this coming change plenty in the past. It's why I've been so hard on Microsoft's stalled handset operating system strategy and why I called Windows Mobile 7 Series a "lost cause." But there it is -- a goal for Microsoft from Google. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seems so obsessed chasing Google, now he has a goal to meet: Three years. He shouldn't dally. The recent social media revolution is clear example of how fast the new thing can push the old aside.

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