Shrinking Devices and Limits

May 7, 2019 Reed Wiedower

It happens so often we’re almost immune to the “news” that a new device is going to change our lives forever. Yet looking back over the past fifty years, there have only been a handful of devices that have altered the way we work and live: the personal desktop computer, portable laptops, cellular phones and now today’s touch-centric smartphones.

Examining the past ten years, and you’ll see a multitude of examples wherein devices that were meant to change our lives failed to do so. A great example is touch: today’s phones and computers largely integrate touch-capable interfaces. Yet the tablet form-factor, which heralded the mainstream of touch, hasn’t largely displaced either phones or laptops, broadly. Similarly, for all the hype about “wearables” a few years ago, neither watches nor glasses have managed to displace either smartphones or computers, yet.

Part of this is due to technical limits. The primary reason that desktops were replaced by laptops is that a laptop could do almost everything a desktop could do, but was also portable. Early smartphones rapidly displaced feature phones because they were the same form factor but capable of far more. So folks got used to the idea that capabilities would continue to increase, and form factors would continue to shrink, over time. Unfortunately, from batteries to cooling, there are still limits to how much can be packed into a small form-factor that is able to run for a day without recharging. Both early tablets and current smartwatches were unable to displace laptops or cell-phones because they didn’t have more features in a more attractive, smaller, form-factor.

This isn’t to say that computing power won’t continue to increase, or that wearables will be over-hyped forever. New battery technologies and innovative processors will eventually allow form factors to shrink once again. Right now, however, most business travelers are still burdened with two to three devices they take everywhere: a smartphone, a laptop and occasionally an e-reader.

The new Samsung foldable phone is an early attempt to get rid of at least one (or two) of those devices. It’s not perfect, but it does accomplish the objective of getting more features into a smaller form factor. That’s always been the premise of why a foldable device is interesting – a watch could never replace an e-reader, but by growing and shrinking a foldable device could accomplish much more.

Ultimately, as long as business folks still carry a laptop around to do “real work”, any foldable device will remain somewhat niche. That’s why there has been such interest in the rumoured Microsoft “Andromeda” device: because it could potentially replace all three. That would truly change most folks lives in a way not seen since the smartphone.

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