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Summary:

Do we only want dumb screens: the ability to get whatever content and services you want over the web instead of locked to a device? Today, the answer is we want it both ways, but in the future, dumb terminals with one exception: the smartphone.

Smartphones

Almost two-thirds of Americans are using more than one computing device — defined as a smartphone, tablet, computer or netbook — according to a poll released this week. Unsurprisingly, the poll, which surveyed 2,000 Americans, found that 83 percent of people want access to their documents in the cloud. Of course they do. When 63 percent of the population has multiple computers and one-third has more than three, keeping them synced is a pain best left back in the early ’00s and late ’90s where it belongs.

The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of TeamViewer, a company that provides presentation software enables desktop sharing in the cloud, helped crystallize a question: Do we only want dumb screens? By dumb screens I mean the ability to get whatever content and services you want over the web as opposed to stored on a hard drive or locked to a device. So far today, the answer is we want it both ways, but in the future I lean toward dumb terminals with one exception: the smartphone.

Right now, the high cost of mobile broadband access and slow speeds (plus intermittent Wi-Fi) make the idea of dumb terminals impractical for most people. But As Wi-Fi becomes more pervasive and LTE networks roll out, I think we’ll see those barriers drop. So it makes sense to think about what should be dumb and exactly how dumb it should be. I think a television makes a great dumb screen. On my laptop, I’d give a hearty plug for a dumb screen (look at the Chromebook for example), and tablets are an area where I lean toward dumb screens as well. Smartphones are the big outlier.

Most of my interaction with my Android handset centers around the web, email and a few apps. On occasion, I take photos and share them from my phone and yes, I still use it for voice calls. So today my smartphone isn’t a dumb screen, but here’s why it never will be:

App Stores. I wish this particular reason would disappear, but I doubt that will happen. Thanks to Apple’s ability to get people to buy into apps, we now have a $14 billion app economy. As someone with iOS and Android devices, as well as a general worldview that wants a unified platform, I wish HTML5 apps would get going in a major way so I can just get what I need on the web as opposed to downloading them from OS-specific or device-specific app stores. It drives me crazy that I can’t get some apps on my Android handset that I use on the iPad, and that if they are offered, I have to buy them twice. So I’d love for apps to stick around, but want the barriers between installing them on any device to fall thanks to HTML5 and permissions to access the hardware on devices.

Smartphones as your link to the digital world. As the most portable and soon-to-be most ubiquitous of the computers folks own, smartphones are increasingly becoming the sensor that connects the real world to my digital one. Thus, I want it packed with sensors, cameras and enough intelligence to ensure these things all work together to upload not just files, but context on my day-to-day wanderings back up to the web.

There’s still a strong argument for different dumb screens to have different interfaces depending on their size and perhaps position in the home. Smaller screens require touch while larger ones should use gesture. As a writer, my laptop needs a keyboard, while my tablet and phone don’t. The debate between smart and dumb screens used to have a component linked to how one would interact with them, but increasingly, I think it’s less a keyboard that makes something “smart” than what kind of information that it needs to store and process. Thanks to web services, I think there’s little we’ll want to store and process on televisions, laptops and even tablets, but smartphones will still require more brains than screen real estate and a good set of radios to ensure image processing, the interaction of the sensor and yes, those darn apps.

As we overload our homes with computers and connected gadgets — 15 percent of Americans use four or more a week according to the Harris poll — the idea of dumbing down the device and relying on web services has strong appeal. Sure, offline access to documents and other services is a stumbling block, but that’s becoming less and less or a problem for those willing to pay for mobile broadband access. How dumb should our devices get?

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  1. I feel that you are musing on the future of computing and stuck in today. The computer is increasingly the cloud in terms of both processing resources and storage/backup. Think of the memory on our devices as caching. Unfortunately, I want my cache large enough to hold my music library and some necessary documents, but man y could live somewhere else. Streaming blows however.

    Processing and storage continue to decrease in size. I have written that we need collaborative processing models, where the phone and outside resources make the smart phone more than a smart phone. The screen is simply a display, the only issue is driving it processing-wise.

    Someday, you will never pull you phone out of the wallet. It will drive the displays at hand. So, in that sense you are correct. But, in associating your smartphone with a display, you obscure the next logical step in smartphones — haptic and voice interfaces.

  2. Nothing new about this, but I agree the idea has come.
    Apple demonstrating display mirroring has come.
    Why have 4 x $499 iPAD in your home. Just the management cost (sync) is a nightmare. Time to dumb down as we are more and more connected all the time. The Sunray (done at Sun), makes sense and I suspect it will start with the Android platform to begin with

  3. One more thing a smartphone is already becoming to be – an identity device. It will be something that carries your identity enabling access to different services and working as device that is able to link different dumb screens to relevant web services securely. Or link your credit card/bank account to merchant’s cash register.

    And there is at least one country in the world where you can use your smartphone (actually dumbphone as well) as identity carrier when signing documents electronically or participating in parlamentary elections. This country is Estonia.

  4. good ideaconcept but could have been written, in a more easy readable style and more imaginatively.

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