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Commentary: Don't throw away that PC

Wireless telephones are taking on more of the features and functions of PCs--but they'll never completely replace the PC.

By Rich Mogull, Gartner Analyst

Technological advances and growing consumer demand are driving the development of more and more sophisticated wireless telephones. Wireless telephones are taking on more of the features and functions of PCs--but they'll never completely replace the PC.

See news story:
Phone makers copy PCs
Many of the mobile devices on the market today--especially personal digital assistants--have faster processors and more random access memory than the desktop computers of just five years ago. Wireless devices are increasing their power at a near-exponential rate, with shirt-pocket-size telephones shipping with browsers, personal information management functions, and even games. It was inevitable that manufacturers and wireless services providers would try to use those advances to attract more customers and draw more revenue.

Consumer interest in added services--and in using wireless telephones for communications other than voice--is rising, too. The tremendous success of text messaging in Europe and Japan, and the growing use of wireless e-mail in the business market--with devices like the RIM BlackBerry pager--points to the potential for a huge market.

Nonetheless, despite the convergence of advanced technology and growing demand, few North American wireless users are performing traditional PC functions on their wireless telephones. There are good reasons for this. One of the most important is the limitations of the available wireless input/output devices--especially small, hard-to-see screens and clumsy keyboards.

PCs and wireless telephones are different tools for different jobs. In some cases, a wireless phone is better suited than the PC for a particular task, but other tasks will always be better served by the PC. Another problem is that it is extremely difficult to translate many PC applications to handheld platforms and devices. Microsoft Word on a wireless device is no longer Microsoft Word.

Beyond the technological issues, however, lies an even more basic problem: lack of compelling services that would entice wireless telephone owners to use--and, just as important, pay for--a broader range of wireless services. The absence of appealing services has obstructed even the most basic wireless "PC" functionality, text messaging, in the North American market.

The wireless carriers, anxious to protect their valuable customer bases, have made it virtually impossible to offer open text messaging across other carriers' systems. The result: Even this simplest form of communication--hugely popular in Europe and Japan--has yet to reach the breakthrough point in the United States and Canada.

Until wireless text messaging reaches critical mass, the adoption of more advanced wireless functions and services will remain a distant dream--at least in North America. This functionality may gain acceptance faster in the developing world, where it may offer a more affordable alternative to PCs.

To make any of this happen, wireless service providers will have to deliver what Gartner calls the mobile equation: immediacy times mobility minus inconvenience. That means anywhere/anytime data--the right data--delivered in an accessible, easy-to-use fashion. The providers are nowhere near delivering on that equation. That's why nobody should be throwing away their PCs anytime soon.

(For a related commentary, on the new BlackBerry 5810, see gartner.com.)

Entire contents, Copyright © 2002 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.