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The Smartphone Is the Computer — Or It Will Be

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Samsung today introduced Orion, the company’s next-generation, dual-core smartphone chip based on the ARM (s armh) Cortex-A9 architecture. Orion uses two 1 GHz processors and includes an embedded GPS radio for native location-based service support. The new application processor will also include a graphics core with hardware acceleration for 1080p video encoding, decoding and playback at 30 frames per second; Samsung says Orion will offer up to five times the 3G graphics performance over its prior smartphone application processor.

For now, Samsung’s announcement is simply that: an announcement. Orion won’t be mass-produced until the first half of 2011, so look to next year’s Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress events for actual products using the new chip. However, the capabilities of the new processor give a hint of what functionality you can expect in devices next year and beyond. Chips like this will continue to power smartphone sales, much to the chagrin of Intel (s intc). Juniper Research today says 3-D technology and dual-core chips will push the smartphone market to $94 billion in sales by 2015, thanks to functions like these:

More horsepower when you need it. Multiple cores helped bring speed to the computer industry, and they’ll do the same with smartphones. Look for developers to create handheld applications that can offer more complex features while maintaining or even increasing their responsiveness thanks to Orion’s support to execute code out-of-order. Instead of mobile apps limited by the CPU, screen sizes will become a more prominent limitation to getting things done. Multitasking won’t be as painful an experience as switching between apps should be quick and seamless. Perhaps most important to a mobile device, battery savings can be achieved through dropping down to a single core for processing when maximum performance isn’t needed.

Multiple screens. Perhaps screen limitation will be overcome by a traditional computer monitor or HDTV set. Orion — and chips like it from Nvidia (s nvda), TI (s txn) and Qualcomm (s qcom) — offers HDMI output for viewing smartphone content on a larger screen. Some phones do that today, making it easy to share pictures and videos on a television set, but Orion can drive three separate displays up to full 1080p resolution: two frames on the smartphone and one on an HDTV set simultaneously. The handset could be providing entertainment on a big screen, for example, while a user could be multitasking by sharing a movie review on Facebook in real time using the smartphone display.

Smartphones as future computers. While most folks today think the smartphone can’t replace a computer — for good reason — chips such as Samsung’s Orion bring that reality a step closer. Smartphone limitations of screen size and input methods begin to melt away when a powerful handset can be docked as the brains of a stationary computer. Imagine connecting a more powerful smartphone to a monitor and wireless keyboard: the only remaining challenge is finding the right apps for the tasks at hand. Expect developers to take advantage of improved smartphone processors and the new features they bring, making the smartphone a potential computer replacement in the coming years.

While there are arguably many reasons for the current smartphone growth trend — application ecosystems, use of multitouch interfaces and more widespread connectivity — one of the biggest is the impact made by the introduction of Cortex-A8 chip late last year: Handhelds became less anemic, more responsive and offered a better visual experience. With Orion and other next-generation mobile processors around the corner, the smartphone’s future looks even brighter as a near-primary device. Maybe I’m too bullish saying these chips will turn our smartphones into our computers, so we’ll see if Weili Dai, co-founder of mobile-chip company Marvell (s mrvl), confirms my thoughts at our Mobilize conference later this month.

Related GigaOM Pro Research: For Phones, the Future is Multiple Cores

34 Responses to “The Smartphone Is the Computer — Or It Will Be”

  1. What I see is tomorrow’s smartphone becoming the new Personal Computer in common vernacular, as it were. Can’t get any more personal than a device that someone carries around with them every day and is more than powerful enough for casual computing tasks. That day may even be today, except that I don’t feel that current software and infrastructure are leveraging it as such.

    But smartphones won’t replace “computers”-nay, they ARE computers that complement bigger, more powerful computers. Nobody seems to realize that, though.

    What I’m waiting for are smartphones/New Personal Computers that are basically core computer components that function as smartphones when standalone, but can be docked into, say, a large tablet shell with a larger screen, an EMR pen digitizer, and an extended battery all in one. Another possible shell could be a small unit with a few USB ports and an HDMI-out to turn it into something vaguely resembling today’s desktops.

    The trick, of course, would be to have an interface that suits all of these shells, given the radically different input methods involved between each of them. Each one could be task-based, depending on what each shell is best at. The tablet shell could be used for note-taking and art apps (hence the EMR pen), and the desktop shell with a keyboard could be used for heavy word processing, coding, and possibly even gaming if the specs are up to snuff (though a custom-built desktop from the same era would work far better for that).

  2. I think it was IBM (or maybe Microsoft) that ran a commercial almost a decade ago along these lines. Basically the idea was that we would all carry an extremely powerful but highly mobile computer. It would have a large storage capacity for all our personal data including all our health records (presumably digitized and organized in this unspecified future time.) Because of its size, it’s interactivity would be limited except for perfect voice recognition and output. These limitations would be mitigated by the ability to automatically connect to use devices built into our homes, cars, places of business, etc. (An early indication of location based services?)

    Of course, we haven’t quite reached the promise of that almost forgotten commercial, but smartphones are definitely headed in that direction. At some point they’ll be the only computer most people need, personalized by wireless peripheral devices dictated by the needs of the moment.

    For me the biggest question is: how much of our personal information store will we choose to carry on our persons and how much will we trust to the cloud?

  3. History Professor

    You guys are silly arguing of what is a computer and who get credit for labeling a smartyphone as one. Chill out already. Most things today could be considered a computer.

    FYI, back in the good old days the term COMPUTER actually referred to the HUMAN person that worked on the machine, in that case it was the world’s first computer (aka ENIAC) running in Oklahoma.

    BTW the world’s first computer, called ENIAC is still in its original site (Fort Sill, Oklahoma) and still works. It was originally built for the U.S. Army for calculating battlefield coordinates for Field Artillery. Fort Sill is still the headquarters of U.S. Army Field Artillery and the original computer is still there in a museum on the base!

    So a COMPUTER is a PERSON (not a machine). I don’t know how or when it actually got reversed in meaning.

  4. SPJheartsAPPLE

    Me thinks KCT and BSH are both wrong about what is really the computer. Listen to me now and believe me later.


    I believe SUN was one of the first companies to realize this.


    • Wrong. The Network *was* the computer. Two years ago, using my big brain, I turned it on its head and first (publicly) wrote “the smartphone is the computer”.
      Which is why I was so pissed today. I’ve written posts titled “THE SMARTPHONE IS THE COMPUTER” over 100 times (yes, over 100 times, yes, all scanned by Google, all available on my site).
      Oh, and I attributed the inspiration for that turn of the phrase to Scott McNealy at Sun. And yes, if someone else wrote that before me I’d be pissed cause I happen to think it is clever. (how clever? clever enough to now be used here!)

      However, I accept that I put all my content out there onto the web. Once out, I pretty much lose control of it.

      And I will take Kevin up on that beer.

      • I am not, nor do I have any idea who Darwin is.
        Now, after the name calling, your suggestion is I go away. Perhaps. Anything else?
        Do I have a right to be upset? I operate a website focused on smartphones. The footer tagline is and has been “The smartphone is the computer.” I have written 100s, possibly thousands of posts (all verifiable) titled and including the phrase “The Smartphone is the Computer.” I include a section on business models where I list those that exist solely based on the fact that “The Smartphone is the Computer.” And GigaOm writers have visited my site. And all I asked for was a link if you’re going to write that. That really doesn’t strike me as paranoid or nit picking or even egotistical. Just good web practice.

  5. I don’t want to get on the title as others have, as we’ve bantered about this before. But has there been anything in terms if the power savings, or efficiency metrics that going dual core will bring for mobiles? Add to this, aside from Android, and possibly Windows Phone 8, is any platform vendor looking at dual core hardware as anything more than a high end solution? Dual cores don’t meet the base or even slightly advanced user’s need. And even as being a computer, outside of creative industries and high end entertainment, does such ability matter? Just wondering.

  6. “continue to subscribe to a high speed internet with wifi router?”

    The processors in smartphones will be used in many devices. Internet TV setup boxes is the next obvious example. This combined with VOIP appliances makes for many home internet connections.

    • Brian, take a step back for a second and think about what you’re saying here — not the first time you’ve taken this path, by the way.

      I’ve only read your site to respond when you (incorrectly, as you later understood) accused GigaOM of ripping off your post ideas about chronicling a day in the life of a smartphone. As I said then, the idea isn’t unique to you — I provided a link showing four years worth of such posts here on the network.

      I’ve gone to your site again today, after you left this comment. You’re trying to tell me that your site’s “the smartphone is the computer” tagline is now being stolen? Dude, I had to look for the tagline after you said that because it’s buried in the footer. And are you seriously insinuating that using a smartphone as a computer is solely your own original idea and that nobody else in the world has come up with it?!?

      How about in 2008 when we started discussing it here:

      I could list umpteen more examples, both here and on other sites, but that’s just silly. And the ironic part, which I fully understand you didn’t know when you made your accusation here — is that *I* didn’t even come up with the headline you’re accusing us of stealing. At the last minute, Stacey changed my headline and I know she doesn’t read your site because I’ve just asked her.

      Now, having said that, I’m hoping you understand that the concept of smartphone as a computer isn’t your original idea — nor mine, for that matter. And assuming you do understand that, I hope you’ll continue to do two things:

      1. Keep chiming in our conversations here with insights, which add value.
      2. Consider removing the full-text copy/paste of the above post on your own site because those words are my original thoughts and are protected by copyright on behalf of GigaOM.

      Know that providing proper credit is of the utmost importance to us here, Brian, and if I make a mistake in that area, I’ll be the first to humbly apologize and make the situation right. This isn’t one of those situations and I think if you step back and think this through, you’ll agree.

      • I’m disappointed in you Kevin (or whomever writes the headlines). You say the idea was there back in 2008. Really? You even show a link. Only, no where in that linked article does it actually say “The smartphone is the computer.”

        So when did you start using that catchy notion? You post on smartphones pretty much daily.

        Meanwhile, my site has the tagline The Smartphone is the Computer and has *hundreds* of posts *titled* “The Smartphone is the Computer”.

        If I use a article or even just a sentence from GigaOm (or anyone) I always always always link back. I’m asking only for the same.

        Further, I did not accuse you (or your editor) of “stealing” my idea. I post everything on my site for full public consumption. What I said is that you used my tagline without attribution. I stand by that.

        Your readers are of course welcome to search on my site and make their own view.

      • “Your readers are of course welcome to search on my site and make their own view.”

        I think that’s the best approach here because you’re missing a key point – we simply can’t attribute a tagline we didn’t know about.


  7. the networks will need a lot of improvement. currently a lot of smartphone data is offloaded to wifi. but is there a chance that a household that is mobile phone only without PCs would continue to subscribe to a high speed internet with wifi router? i highly doubt it. smartphones as computers means everything has to go through the cellular pipe, and it absolutely must be an unlimited/unmetered pipe.

  8. In the short term, yes we need more powerful CPUs in our phones, but it’s senseless to think it’ll be the perpetual “arms race” the way it is on PCs.

    …look over at the ‘Device-to-Cloud’ space, you can see that big heavy lifter will be done in the cloud, not on the phone.

    • Todd, I’m a big proponent and user of the cloud — have been for a few years, in fact — so I totally agree with you. The connectivity provided by smartphones is a big part of this too. But there’s still some needed “oomph” on the client side for JavaScript, graphics and such, so I’m happy to see a future boost in smartphone processors.