“Mobile” computing no longer exists

Transitional forms—like Panasonic’s gigantic tablet—are always awkward.
Transitional forms—like Panasonic’s gigantic tablet—are always awkward.
Image: Powers Imagery/Invision/AP
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Anyone who has an interest in the future of computing and mobile should consider the following developments:

PC manufacturers, it is rumored, are collaborating with Google on notebook computers that will run the Android operating system. Yet Android is the “mobile” OS that powers the majority of the world’s smartphones.

Microsoft recognizes this development, and the rising popularity of Google’s Chrome OS, as an existential threat. Microsoft is rumored to be following suit with its own “Windows Blue” operating system, which would merge regular Windows with the Windows Phone operating system.

Google’s development teams for its desktop OS (Chrome) and mobile OS (Android) are now headed by the same person. The former head of the Chrome OS effort, Sundar Pitchai, was recently named boss of both efforts. While Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has said that the two operating systems will remain separate for “a very long time,” he’s also noted that this is as much a product of consumer choice as it is a limitation of the underlying technologies.

The gatekeeper between mobile and non-mobile computing is now largely psychological. When Schmidt says that Google will let the market decide the when and how of fusing of Google’s mobile and desktop operating systems, he is acknowledging that we all grew up with desktop operating systems, and learning how to interact with touchscreen mobile devices is still relatively fresh in our collective memory. (Not to mention the billions in the rising global middle class who have yet to purchase their first smart device.)

Picture a computer interface that scales to whatever screen we encounter. A kind of universal workspace that presents only the features that are appropriate to the device we are on—but is in all important respects identical no matter how we access it.

Is what you picture a lightly modified version of Android or Apple’s iOS operating system for iPads and iPhones? Does it look like Windows 8? Is it Chrome OS with native (Android) apps?

All computing will be, yes, cloud computing.

The reason our phones, tablets and PCs are increasingly interchangeable is that the services we depend on aren’t running on them at all. They’re running on the cloud. More and more, our devices don’t store our data, handle our security or share—directly at least—with our friends and colleagues.

As time goes on, the highest aspiration of most of our devices—be they phone, notebook, smart watch or face-based computer—will be as fast and responsive local caches—copies, that is—of our cloud-based existence.

In this cloud-based world, the question becomes, what is “mobile” computing? If it’s just a name we give to screens that are small enough to carry around, it’s not a terribly useful distinction.