Despite having spent the 2000s turning the generic term “PC” into a pejorative stand-in for “Windows”, Apple may be selling the best PC on the market. It just happens to be the one that fits in your pocket.
Our goal at Lifehacker, as stated in the page title, is to cull together “tips and downloads to help you at work and play”. (It was previously a much cooler but presumably less Google-friendly, “Geek to live; don’t live to geek.”) So why are we talking about smartphone categorisation semantics?
Namely because a significant portion of what we’ve always covered involves using technology to make your work, your play, and your life better, richer, and more productive. For years, that meant focusing on desktop PC operating systems like Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Increasingly, it involves mobile (phone) operating systems like iOS and Android (and sometimes others). The more we’ve covered them, the more we’ve realised that your desktop PC and your smartphone really aren’t all that different. Except one is a whole lot better at performing personal tasks.
Smartphones Are PCs…
When you strip away the advertising and consider the term “personal computer”, you’re left with a pretty broad term that easily applies to today’s currently huge smartphone market (including iPhones, Android phones, webOS devices, BlackBerrys, Windows Phones 7, and so on.) Wikipedia’s article on the personal computer defines the PC as “any general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities and original sales price make it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end user with no intervening computer operator”. (Ignore the woefully outdated section on Pocket PCs.) Point is, smartphones easily meet the generic requirement for being classified as PCs.
…only they’re more personal…
There’s not much room for interpretation on what “computer” means. The tautologous answer is “anything that computes”, though we can stick with Wikipedia’s more specific definition of a computer as “a programmable machine that receives input, stores and manipulates data and provides output in a useful format”.
On the other hand, if we focus on the whole “personal” aspect of the PC, there’s certainly more room for interpretation. And from a computing perspective, what’s more personal than a gadget that:
- …comes with you wherever you go
- …knows where you are
- …is always connected to the internet
- …handles every form of electronic communication short of Morse code (oh wait)
- …recognises your voice and reacts accordingly
- …doesn’t just spellcheck, but corrects your typos
And so on.
…and do nearly everything better…
While desktop or laptop PCs are capable of performing most of the tasks mentioned in the list above in one way or another, most often than not they’re not default features, and more importantly, today’s smartphones do them better.
It’s always with you: You’ve heard the saying “The best camera is the one you have with you”? The same is true for PCs, and in this case, it’s your smartphone. (Ignore for a moment the fact that your smartphone is often the camera you’ve got with you, too.) Most of us don’t have the physical endurance to lug a laptop around everywhere we go, and even if we did, pulling it out every time you want to check your email is a pain most of us aren’t willing to endure.
It knows where you are: Even better, when you pull out your smartphone to start using it, it quickly identifies where you are and uses that information to inform nearly everything it does for you. (I’ve also used both iPhone and Android as dash-mounted GPS devices and have never been disappointed.)
It’s a great communicator: One of the most personal things we do is communicate, and your smartphone, surprise, is a great communicator. Voice, text, pictures, video—it spans media and medium in a way your desktop never has.
It listens to you: Most smartphone OSes come with at least some form of voice recognition, and it’ll only get better. Android phones are currently at the top of this heap, allowing you to use your voice to fill in any text input on your device, search the internet, navigate to anywhere, play music, etc. I’ve tried really hard in the past to use voice recognition on my desktop and have always been a little disappointed. That hasn’t been the case on smartphones.
In fact, if we’re considering the “personal” part of “personal computer” to apply more to those things above than to—I don’t know—filling out spreadsheets, smartphones perform most PC tasks better than your desktop PC. And compared to the relatively stagnant desktop market, the smartphone market is overflowing with great ideas—both in theory and execution. (Small tweaks to desktop operating systems aside, when’s the last time you remember your desktop take a significant leap toward doing something truly innovative or life-changing?)
…except for a few things
It would be crazy not to admit that desktop computers do some things better, and there are some things you still can’t do on smartphones.
Namely, right now desktop PCs are better for work. They’re better for typing. They’re better for manipulating large data sets and for heavy computation. They’re better at multitasking. They’re better at creation.
But that’s all changing. You can, for example, connect a Bluetooth keyboard to a lot of different smartphones, so when it comes to simple word processing, these small devices can work really well. (For what it’s worth, though, some smartphone software keyboards are really good. I think I can type on an iPhone keyboard nearly as quickly as on my desktop.)
Yes, you can also criticise smartphones (in the same way the iPad is criticised) for being consumption devices rather than creative devices. Leaving aside the fact that I now semi-regularly draw on my iPad (versus never anywhere else), it’s not a criticism without warrant. And creation is a big part of what makes PCs great. But I wouldn’t count out your smartphone’s creative capacity just yet.
The thing is, smartphones get better at all of this with every OS release and every new hardware iteration. Almost everything that desktop systems do better will, in time, improve on your smartphone. You’ll be able to handle serious computational tasks, if only via the cloud. (This already happens, but will happen to a greater degree.) You’ll be able to plug it into a monitor or project onto a wall and get the screen real estate and (potentially) the multi-window environment you need.
I’m not saying that the desktop PC is dead (proclamations that institutions are dead are far too common in the technology sphere). But from a personal computer standpoint, your smartphone is doing things your desktop only wishes it could do. (Or, you know, things you wish your desktop would do.)
This whole train of thought may seem apropos of nothing (as someone who writes on the internet, you learn that it’s important to peg your thoughts on news if you want anyone to care-this isn’t one of those articles), but the smartphone I carry around in my pocket is the the best PC I’ve ever used, and I suspect I’m not alone. Here’s to continuing to hack away at it and make it even better.