As our phones get smarter, smaller and faster and enable users to connect at high speeds to the Internet, an obvious question arises: is the mobile handset turning into the next computer? In one sense, it already has. Today’s most sophisticated phones have the processing power of a mid-1990s PC while consuming 100 times less electricity. And more and more of today’s phones have computerlike features, allowing their owners to send e-mail, browse the Web and even take photos; 84 million phones with digital cameras were shipped last year. Tweak the question, though, to ask whether mobile phones will ever eclipse, or replace, the PC, and the issue suddenly becomes controversial. PC proponents say phones are too small and connect too sluggishly to the Internet to become effective at tasks now performed on the luxuriously large screens and keyboards of today’s computers. Fans of the phone respond: just wait. Coming innovations will solve the limitations of the phone. “One day, 2 or 3 billion people will have cell phones, and they are all not going to have PCs,” says Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and the chief technology officer of PalmOne. “The mobile phone will become their digital life.”
Could your phone one day actually perform many of the functions of the PC, like word processing and Web browsing? PalmOne’s Hawkins thinks so. The inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Treo keeps a desktop PC and a thin Sony Vaio laptop in his office. Yet he waves at both dismissively, as if they were heading for the dustbin of history. Within the next few decades, he predicts, all phones will become mobile phones, all networks will be capable of receiving voice and Internet signals at broadband speeds, and all mobile bills will shrink to only a few dollars as the phone companies pay off their investments in the new networks. “You are going to have the equivalent of a persistent [fast] T1 line in your pocket. That’s it. It’s going to happen,” Hawkins predicts. The computer won’t go away, he says, but it might fade to the background, since people prefer portability and devices that turn on instantly instead of having to boot up.