Friday, January 09, 2009

Will Cell Phones Replace Laptop Computers?

The laptop computer has grown to replace the yellow legal pad as the key mobile business tool. But laptop computers may be on the way out too. They are big, heavy and power hungry. By comparison, a 7 oz. legal pad that tucks under your arm and never needs charging starts to look pretty attractive again. The move is on to find mobile processing that has the right speed and connectivity without all the heft. Could the end result actually wind up being a cell phone?

The idea of the cell phone that does everything is compelling. Most everyone is carrying a cell phone these days. That gives you voice communications for sure. But data communications has been infiltrating the cellular world for years. It started simply enough as SMS text messaging. Then came built-in email and, finally, full HTML Web browsers.

The BlackBerry device is a perfect example of a cellular phone fine-tuned for business applications. It typically sports a good size display screen and a full QWERTY keyboard located just below the screen in a chunky candybar package. The key development that made BlackBerry the darling of corporate America is the secure "push" email service offered by RIM. Most BlackBerry devices also have the ability to read Microsoft Office documents and PDF attachments to email messages.

The BlackBerry Storm advances the technology by going with a touch screen and virtual keyboard that includes tactile feedback. The idea behind the virtual keyboard is to save real estate on the phone so that it can be redeployed as a larger screen size. A bigger screen makes Web browsing and document reading easier. In fact, at screen sizes of 3 inches diagonal or so, the phone display becomes something akin to a very small computer display.

The touch screen smartphone may well be the next generation of integrated telephone-computer mobile technology. Samsung is pressing this direction with models such as the Instinct, Delve, Behold, and Glyde. LG is competing with its Vu, Shine, and Voyager models.

What has really kick-started the smartphone revolution is the ready availability of cellular broadband service. The large carriers AT&T and Verizon have been in a frenzy to upgrade their tower sites to enable broadband data speeds of typically 700 Kbps download with bursts to twice that and, in some cases, several Mbps bandwidth. That's fast enough to easily access today's business websites and use Internet-based applications. Video downloads also become practical at broadband speeds.

But some users are frustrated by having to choose between a 7 lb laptop and a 3 oz cell phone. They would really like something in-between. That's the void being filled by notebook and netbook computers. Both are much smaller than the traditional 12 to 15 inch laptop screen size - perhaps half that. They also chuck such size and weight boosting accessories as floppy drives or even CD / DVD drives. Do you really need these while out on business calls?

Some netbooks are now coming with cellular broadband connectivity built-in rather than needing a separate aircard. You buy a data only plan from the appropriate carrier and you have connectivity in your car or at a client's office. No need to search out WiFi hotspots in restaurants or hotels, the mainstay of laptop Internet service. The other coming netbook development is the touchscreen tablet form factor. These will essentially look like large smartphones. They may even have voice capability via VoIP, but you'll wind up using a headset as you'll look a bit silly holding a netbook up to your ear.

This year is likely to see a technology battle between traditional portable computers and smartphones for mobile supremacy. Right now it looks like smartphones are going to proliferate but netbook computers may as well. After all, each has its usability advantages.

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