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The Next Desktop Replacement: Phones?

Fast forward to 2020 and we’ve had iPads take on the desktop replacement challenge with some degree of elegance.

First came the laptops. Those beastly, 17-inch hunks with a fan big enough to cool your entire bedroom. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but those things were HUGE! My first “desktop replacement” was the Alienware M17x R4 from 2012. It had a 3rd generation i7 processor, 8GB RAM, and an NVidia GTX 680M. By 2012 standards, I was “flexing” when I brought it to class during my final year of college. Fast forward to 2020 and we’ve had iPads take on the desktop replacement challenge with some degree of elegance. Apple’s in-house ARM-based chips can now enable professional Youtubers to edit and publish their videos from a 10-inch tablet that requires no fan and has far more efficient power management than the M17x R4.

…we may see a decline, but not a complete demise, in both desktop and laptop usage…

Processing power and efficiency have come a long way.

I personally believe the next logical step in desktop replacement evolution, namely the ability for our phones to be fully-capable desktop replacements, will become a mainstream means of productivity in the next 8 years, and we may see a decline, but not a complete demise, in both desktop and laptop usage in the next 15 years.

…the Android ecosystem is still lagging in ability to adapt to the desktop form factor on demand.

Phones as desktops have already arrived in a few forms, one of the most popular being Samsung DeX. However, like Chrome OS has painfully revealed, much of the software in the Android ecosystem is still lagging in ability to adapt to the desktop form factor on demand. That being said, this ecosystem could still catch up, given the right incentives.

Samsung DeX in use with a Galaxy S8 in 2017 – Photo by Maurizio Pesce (licensed as CC BY 2.0)

…phone hardware is beginning to match the speed of productivity laptops.

Another reason I believe we are on the cusp of phones becoming our next desktop replacement is that phone hardware is beginning to match the speed of productivity laptops. For example, the Snapdragon 865+, which powers the highest-end Android phones of 2020, is marginally faster than the i5 processor that powers the base 2020 model of the Macbook Air!

While on the one hand ARM processors may never match the jaw-dropping speeds of a venerable AMD Threadripper per an objective benchmark, they don’t have to. Most Windows and Mac users run essential tasks on highly inefficient software optimized for platform compatibility at the cost of native performance. Thanks, Chromium! Android and iOS have a potential advantage over this problem. Thoughtful software optimization for OS-specific development can produce higher yield in throughput during intensive tasks. That is why you can edit and export 4K video on an iPad without it appearing to break a sweat, but if you try to run some Electron-based media apps on a Mac it will blast the fan loud enough to wake up your spouse. Also, with the growth of cloud computing offerings, we are returning in many ways to the 70s and 80s model of having computers with less hardware resources requesting the harder tasks from larger, rented computing resources.

The possibilities are exciting enough that I’m saving up to buy the best DeX-capable phone money could buy next year. My guess is it will be called the “Note 30 Ultra” if the current naming convention doesn’t change again. If I can install Linux on it as a VM, or if I can remote into an affordable cloud desktop from it, could my next phone become the one that replaces my laptop?

What do you think?

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