HP-Elite-x3-front-facing-980x980We already knew that smartphones are becoming an increasingly common way to read e-books, but new developments suggest they’re becoming much more than that. While some news to come out of the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona suggests tablets are on the decline, here’s a piece looking at how “smartphones” are moving more into the realm of general computing devices.

Tech and marketing analyst Bob O’Donnell points out that the vast minority of smartphone owners’ usage time is spent on “traditional” smartphone purposes, like phone calls or text messaging. Instead, it’s used for media consumption, browsing the web, and social media. Also, considerably more people are using personal phones or work-provided phones for work-related purposes.

The only thing that really prevents the smartphone from taking over the general-purpose computing niche is the relatively tiny display the devices have. It might do well in a pocket, or for simple tasks like email and social media, but for productivity purposes it’s generally not going to work.

mobile-extenderBut O’Donnell notes that HP’s new Elite X3 Windows 10 phone might be changing that, as it is effectively a phone that can slot into various accessories such as the “Mobile Extender” dock that effectively provides a 12.5” laptop form factor. Unlike prior Windows 10 phones, like the Nokia Lumia, the X3 tries to be more of a computer with smartphone functions tacked on, rather than a smartphone with computer functions tacked on. And while it has some issues that might make it less than ideal as a main computing device (most notably that, as an ARM device, it can’t run most current Windows applications), it points the way toward a more interesting mobile device future.

My brother has one of those Lumia phones, and is happy about how it can turn into a full-fledged Windows desktop when you put it into a dock, even as he’s less satisfied with how it handles some of its phone functions. (He’s mainly happy that it’s a Windows phone just so he doesn’t catch teasing from our other brother, an Apple user, for using an iPhone with a Windows computer.)

I can certainly see where O’Donnell is coming from with this idea of smartphones becoming the new laptop. However, it seems to me that, even if they aren’t used so much for calls or texting anymore, smartphones still do see so much use for mobile purposes such as web browsing, social media, or e-reading that they still have to be fit for that purpose over everything else.

The thing about Android and iOS is that they’re mature, fully-developed operating systems that are completely suitable for those mobile tasks—that’s what they were built for from the beginning. They’re less good at productivity tasks, though Remix OS is trying to change that. But when it comes to putting Windows 10 on a smartphone, you’re trying to take an operating system that has seen twenty years of development for the desktop and then slap a fresh coat of mobile paint on it and cram it into your pocket. It might work great for productivity purposes, but it’s much less satisfactory as a pocket-sized phone.

If I had my druthers, I’d get a Windows tablet of some kind, and use that as a mobile Windows solution for those rare occasions when I needed Windows (such as posting TeleRead articles from Live Writer), but continue using Android phones because they’re just so much better at doing phone stuff. (I had a Windows tablet briefly and enjoyed it as far as it went, but had to send it back when it turned out that its WiFi didn’t work at all.) But I could see where someone who sees the desktop as the most important factor might want to go with a Windows phone instead.

Perhaps the most intriguing question to come out of this, though, is whether “smartphones” need a new name given that their use as actual “phones” is quickly dwindling over time. Will we come up with something else? Or will we still keep right on calling them “smartphones” the way we continue to use other terms that don’t really apply anymore, such as “stock tickers” that haven’t used actual ticker tape in decades?

Whatever we might end up calling them, I know this much: a smartphone by any other name will still read e-books just as well.


  1. I can’t agree with your conclusions about Windows Phone. I’ve been using a Windows Phone since the WP7 days, and there’s absolutely nothing “less satisfactory” about it as a mobile OS. Honestly, there’s only two reasons why these phones haven’t become more successful: 1) the lack of apps and 2) the market’s dislike of Microsoft in general at this point in time. The OS is completely capable, and many actually prefer it over Android/iOS. It’s won awards for a reason.

    The X3 “mobile extender” isn’t really connected via a dock, per se. It can be used either wirelessly, or simply by plugging the phone into the laptop like device via a cable. HP does have a dock for the X3, but that’s for docking to a standard keyboard/mouse/monitor setup.

    This is likely the near future for businesses, but I doubt consumers take to it. It’s attractive for businesses because it means one device to manage, but consumers won’t find many benefits over just using multiple devices. The real future is likely to be something more along the lines of a flexible display that can be compactly rolled up and some form of ultra portable keyboard, such as a virtual keyboard, connected wirelessly to your mobile phone/computer. This is just a waypoint on our journey to the planned destination.

  2. All technology comes with inherent limitations. Earlier this week, my water heater died and yesterday I picked up a replacement that just fit in the back of my ancient Toyota station wagon. There the two technologies matched. But if I’d had to replace my stove or refrigerator, my vehicle wouldn’t have been enough. I’d have needed a pickup truck.

    Digital gadgets are much the same. When I layout books, two large displays are barely adequate. The idea that setup could be replace with a laptop, much less a tablet is absurd. On the other hand, for checking the weather with an app, my iPhone can’t be beat.

    Efforts to push technology that works in one realm into another fall into that problem. It’s not just screen size that’s an issue. A touch UI isn’t remotely as versatile as a keyboard mouse combination. I see them as circles on a sheet of paper. Doing actual book layout requires a desktop and large screens. There’s no getting around that. That work goes into the desktop with large screens circle.

    Writing books is a different matter. Some people may write using a smartphone touch keyboard. I’d rather have my teeth pulled without a pain-killer. I email myself ideas about books that come to me on the go, but I don’t attempt to turn those ideas into text. I hate clumsy and slow too much.

    The circle for laptops rests in a problematic area for me. I write on a white MacBook so old, it’s three OS Xs behind. That is fine, because I only use Scrivener on it, but eventually Scrivener won’t run on it. Do I get another laptop? Probably not. Jonathan Ives at Apple seems to have as his chief design criteria for Mac laptops “design ones that Mike Perry hates.” That leaves tablets as an option. Can I run Scrivener on my iPad? Not yet, but probably in a few months I will. Only use will demonstrate if an iPad can replace a laptop for a basic task like writing.

    Right now, my goal is staying within a three-gadget life style. A desktop for work is a must, as is a smartphone. After all, I have to have a cell phone, so it might as well be smart. It’s the middle that is in doubt. Chris believes a smartphone can move into the tablet space. That works with consumption. I doubt that works so well with creation, so it’s a tablet or laptop for me. Others with less demands on technology may find one or two gadgets do them well. That’s why market is likely to always be a mess and trends will be trends for some but not for others.

    I’m just glad we’ve got a lot of choices. My first computer, a Kaypro IV, had far less power than my smartphone and was portable only to the extent that something weighing about 25 pounds and needing an electric outlet is portable. With the keyboard attached, it was one very heavy metal box. All our current gadgets are better than that.

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