The combination of a thirst for the Internet and a mobile society has the smartphone industry positioned to define the next generation of computing.
LAS VEGAS - There's almost as many people buying smartphones as there are people buying laptops, and that trend is about to turn the computing industry on its head.
"We do see that gravitational pull of the single-use device being played out in the market," said Nigel Clifford, CEO of Symbian, during the opening presentations of Smartphone Summit here at CTIA 2008. "This is not just about multiple devices, it's about knocking aside some other forms of communication."
At CTIA, smartphones are still a niche product. The Smartphone Summit was held in two generic meeting rooms deep inside the maze of twisty passages that is the Las Vegas Convention Center, while hundreds of cranes and forklifts careened around the show floor, setting up for tomorrow's main event. The math is simple: smartphones like Nokia's N95, LG's Voyager, and Apple's iPhone make up around 10 percent of the global market for mobile phones
But that's already a serious number. With the mobile phone market crossing 1 billion units in 2007, that's 115 million smartphones that were purchased worldwide last year. In the PC world, notebook shipments are gaining on desktop shipments, but on a worldwide basis still make up less than half of the 271 million PCs shipped last year.
The PC isn't going anywhere, but it's increasingly competing for attention with the smartphone. This is an old story in Europe, where teenagers searching for flashy phones and Web access have been served by carriers hawking inexpensive phones, said Pete Cunningham, a senior analyst with Canalys.
But in the U.S., people are just waking up to the possibilities presented by having the Internet in your pocket. Credit Apple and the iPhone for the surge in interest on the part of Americans, said Jonathan Goldberg, senior analyst with Deustche Bank.
The title of a slide used in Clifford's presentation was "Brands are Transitioning From the Desk to the Hand." The slide contained a who's-who list of Internet properties, including Google, Yahoo, eBay, and the usual suspects, and was making the point that the PC is not the only avenue to the Internet.
Three things in particular are driving smartphone growth and interest among regular people: the increasing amount of time they spend online on things like social-networking sites, the impatience of having to wait until they get back to their home or coffee shop to get online to check messages or update their status, and the desire to look good while doing all that, he said.
For all the hubbub over the iPhone's software development kit, it seems most people are content to spend their time in their browsers. Bill Hughes, principal analyst at In-Stat, surveyed U.S. smartphone users and found that they only downloaded 1.83 applications on average, and that many of those were games. The number of iPhone users in the survey was too small to be relevant, Hughes said, meaning that smartphone users with more open operating systems aren't really taking advantage of them.
Obviously, you're not going to find too many smartphone naysayers at an event called the Smartphone Summit sponsored by Symbian, the world's largest smartphone operating system provider. But when you consider the trend more broadly, it's hard to deny.
At some point, we'll be able to retire the term smartphone, Goldberg said, in a development that will delight the editorial copy desk at News.com. Intel and ARM are pushing on each other to develop more and more powerful chips for mobile devices. Apple and Google are raising the bar for operating systems in terms of performance, user interface, and openness. And carriers are starting to recognize that in the future, they might be no different than a wireless ISP.
That means all our phones will be smart. In other parts of the world, where PC adoption is still just getting underway, a lot of people might just skip over the PC and start using a powerful phone that costs around $200 to $300, gets them online at broadband speeds, lasts all day, and fits in their pocket.
That's a smart idea.