WWDC 2020: Is the phone finally going to be THE computer?
Did Nokia get it right in 2007?
One of the most talked-about phones in 2007 claimed to be as good as a computer. In fact, in a high profile campaign, it predicted that it was “what computers will become.” Yes, we know the iPhone was launched in 2007, but the phone that made this claim was actually the Nokia N95. It had seemed way too grand a claim at that time – “just try typing on a phone” was the answer of most cynics – but as the opening day of WWDC 2020 drew to a close, one had a feeling that the computer was finally becoming the phone. Or vice versa, depending on how you saw it.
Sir, or rather Big Sur, you have such iOS feels!
Now, right from the beginning, smartphones have always aspired to be computers. Whether it was Palm, BlackBerry, i-Mate, or Nokia, the ultimate goal of a smartphone was to literally put a computer in your hand or into your pocket. And right from the beginning, computer users scoffed at the idea. Phones, they insisted, were simply not good enough. They were underpowered, their displays were too small, their software was totally different, and were at best all right for messaging and mail, but computers were the REAL thing. In fact, even when Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone, he called it three different devices in one – “an iPod, a phone, an Internet mobile communicator” – but none of them was a computer. At that time, it was pretty much accepted that phones could not challenge computers.
Well, that thought process has come full circle. Anyone who looks at the latest updates of Mac OS, iPad OS, and iOS from WWDC will see that more than ever, the phone is influencing the computer. The app icons in the dock in Big Sur are looking exactly like the ones on iOS. Apple’s computer OS is also now getting a Control Centre, just like its iOS counterparts. Big Sur is also getting widgets and a notification area…are you getting my drift? And of course, suddenly all devices need to be able to handle messages and calls – things that were once the preserve of the phone. It is a move towards convergence of different platforms, but the greatest influence is clearly that of the phone.
Microsoft got it right…and did it wrong!
Microsoft, Apple’s great rival, had the same idea when it made its initial foray into the smartphone business. It figured that smartphones and computers had to have similar interfaces. And anyone who has used Windows Mobile will tell you that the icons and even some of the functionality were very similar to what one got on Windows XP and Windows 7 machines. It did seem to make sense at that time – after all, more people used computers rather than smartphones and a desktop was generally the first computer came in contact with.
There was just one problem with this approach – Windows Mobile was not comfortable to use. Most touchscreens in those days were resistive and were best used with a pointed object, like a stylus (many used fingernails). Yes, one could also use keyboards but the functionality was not well implemented. In many senses, Microsoft did the right thing, but in the wrong way. When it did step away from the Windows look and came out with a totally different Windows Phone interface, it fell between two stools – some complained that it was not as good as Android and iOS, and others complained that it did not feel like Windows.
Some manufacturers tried the opposite approach when Android became popular, making Android notebooks. The logic was sound – the phone had become the primary Internet device for most people – but once again, the implementation messed it up, as Android was not really designed for desktops or notebooks. Samsung has faced similar issues with its DEX implementation which allows you to plug your phone into a display to get a computer-like experience, but then people do not really want to use Android like that.
Ironically, Microsoft came with a near-perfect solution with the Lumia 950 which when plugged into a display gave you something like a Windows 10 interface, but by that time, Microsoft’s phone experiment was already running out of steam, and the feature did not get the attention it merited, with the phone being marketed more as a great camera phone (which it was). Google did better with its Chromebook concept, which revolved around mobility, but simply focused on one of the most used features of a computer – the Chrome browser – and built everything around it. However, the moment it put Android apps on it, things began to come apart. Phones and computers have always seemed to have this very odd relationship – people use them for a lot of similar purposes and yet they have stayed very different.
Making the phone the computer, the Apple way
Apple’s approach to unifying the phone and the computer has been far more gradual if you notice. As the iPhone fever started gripping the world, the folks at Cupertino seemed to have figured out that the iPhone was perhaps the most used of all Apple products, simply because one uses a phone more frequently than a notebook or a desktop. Yes, you can have a desktop or notebook open for more hours in front of you, but the intensity with which a phone is used is far greater for most folks. This is why from the very beginning, more features flowed from the iPhone to the Mac than the other way around.
The introduction of the iPad provided the perfect middle ground between the Mac and the iPhone. While I do not believe that this was intentional in the early days of the iPad (indeed, there was a stage when it seemed as if Apple had given up on its tablet), recent times seem to indicate that Apple’s tablet was increasingly becoming a trial platform of sorts for a unified Apple interface, with features of both iOS and macOS.
Interestingly, however, iOS called the shots here. To its credit, Apple did so without trying to alter its existing computer range – the Macs still do not have touchscreens, and the keyboard remained a paid-for add on to the iPads. But the hints were clearly being dropped. The iPad Pro range was not just Apple telling the world: “you can use the tablet as a computer“, but also more covertly “a computer can work just like your phone does.” The rationale is the same as Microsoft’s – you will be able to use your computer just like your phone – but the morphing has been very carefully gradual. By keeping operating systems apart in terms of nomenclature, even though they did share a lot of common functionality, Apple seems to have kept expectations realistic and not over the top – no one quite complains THAT loudly if an iPad does not do what a MacBook does. But then there is a road being built between iOS and macOS, with iPad OS acting as a handy stopover between those two venues.
The software updates revealed at WWDC 2020 seem to be another step in this “phone to computer” direction. This is set to continue with Apple making its own processors based on the ARM architecture (which according to experts is actually better suited for mobile devices), which could potentially further bridge the gap between iOS and Mac OS. Knowing Apple, the company will not rush into this but will continue edging both platforms towards each other. How long this will take is anyone’s guess, but the journey does seem to be underway.
Smartphones started out as sort of shrunk versions of computers with small displays and keyboards. In the future, we could see computers becoming slightly larger versions of phones with bigger displays and keyboards. It might take time, but it could well happen if what we saw at WWDC is an indication.
Nokia might have got it right (as it did so many things), even if it could not quite implement it itself, way back on 2007:
It’s (the phone is) what computers will become.