How the Phone is Replacing the Computer

With new software and services, the smartphone will displace the PC at the center of our digital lives.


Phone makers have long told us that the lowly handset would one day replace the mighty PC at the center of our digital lives. The day is getting closer, judging from announcements at this year's Las Vegas convention of the CTIA, the nation's leading wireless association. It wasn't so much new smartphones that were introduced, though there were a few. It's more the flood of services and software that are making those phones smarter. Consumers can find and download applications that will have them turning to their phones for much more than conversations or E-mail.

Nobody suggests yet that the PC is going away. Running a complicated spreadsheet or editing video still requires a big screen and powerful processors. But evidence is growing that phones are poised to displace PCs for most of our computing.

App Stores. Adding software to phones had meant using awkward Web browsers on a small screen, or tethering a phone to a computer after completing the search there. A few carriers offered easier access, such as "Get It Now" on Verizon Wireless. But the choices were few and tightly controlled by the network operator. Apple blew away that approach with the launch last year of its App Store for the iPhone. The handset maker instead of the wireless provider controls the store, and has made it easy for developers to write new software. The iPhone App Store now holds more than 31,000 choices. Many are silly, such as those that mimic flatulence or steam coating your screen. Others are useful, for tracking finances and contacts or reading books. A similar store opened for Google's Android phones, and this week for BlackBerrys. Nothing is making the phone more like a PC than the ability to customize it with new software.

[Read how BlackBerry's App World has more rough edges than iPhone's App Store.]

Internet Calls. Steep charges have held back the use of cellphones for making international calls. So many users would wait until they got home, where many turned to super-cheap Internet calling through desktop computers. Services sprang up to allow Internet calling through the data connections on mobile handsets. This week, the grandaddy of Internet calling, Skype, brought its reputation for quality and innovation to the iPhone with new software in the App Store. The software is already available on other smartphones, and planned for the BlackBerry. Meanwhile, a startup called Zer01 will do away altogether with conventional cellphone calls under a $70-a-month plan with unlimited voice and data. The company has leased data links on cellphone networks to connect handsets directly to its Internet backbone in service that will launch in July. The phone will no longer be a phone but a small computer linked on the Internet that will just happen to feature voice calls.

[Read more about Zer01's service and how it's similar to the magicJack device for PCs.]

Swappable Systems. Savvy computer users have figured out how to run more than one operating system on their PC. It was geeks who first learned to run Windows programs on their Linux boxes. But such "virtualization" went mainstream with Mac users who run Windows through programs like Parallels and VMWare Fusion. Now the same concept is coming to mobile phones, with the upcoming Evoke QA4 from Motorola. The maker of the immensely popular Razr phones has struggled to find a new hit. Evoke is an innovative effort with a touch screen and slide-out dialpad. But more important are the software guts that can run multiple operating systems because of virtualization software, which promises to produce a smartphone at the price of standard handsets. If the software works well, Motorola may have a new hit—and many more of us may have smartphones.

[Read more about how Evoke's new software trick will work.]

Netbooks. Yes, these are more computer than cellphone. But phone giant AT&T has launched a cellphone-like plan that offers a cheap netbook ($50) in exchange for a 2-year contract for wireless data at $60 a month. Verizon Wireless and other carriers are reportedly readying their own plans, which are already widespread in other countries. Google, meanwhile, is pushing netbook makers to install its Android software, which was originally developed for cellphones. The software would be a direct threat to Microsoft's Windows, which already faces competition from open-source Linux in the fast-growing market of netbooks. Cellphone chipmakers like Qualcomm are customizing their processors for a new class of even cheaper netbooks. Computers sold by cellphone companies and handset chips and software on PCs: The lines are quickly blurring between phones and computers, suggesting one day that the distinction might have little meaning.