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The Big Mobile and Desktop Platform Merge Is Underway

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A funny thing happened on the way to the mobile app economy we’re currently experiencing: tens of thousands of compelling software titles have been created, and some of them are actually good enough to displace their desktop or web counterparts. In some cases, these mobile apps are just as functional as, and easier to use than their traditional computing equivalents. That observation about software has me thinking about the subtle, but growing merger of desktop and mobile computing. Need a few examples of this early shift?

  • Motorola’s Atrix (s mmi). When I reviewed the Atrix 4G, I found it to be an excellent phone, but the unique lapdoc accessory still leaves a bit to be desired. However, as a concept, I love what Motorola is trying to do here with a modular solution that blends the mobile and desktop worlds. Placing the phone in a lapdoc — a laptop-like shell with keyboard, battery and high resolution display — launches a Linux-based desktop, complete with a Mozilla Firefox browser. You can’t install apps here, but you can run practically any web-based app there is. And the lapdoc can show or run apps from the attached Android phone, right on the lapdoc’s screen.
  • Android on Windows. Much like the Atrix implementation, some companies are experimenting with Android (s goog) running on Microsoft Windows PCs (s msft). Until now, a few computer manufacturers created dual-boot solutions for Android or Windows, but BlueStacks now offers software that runs Android within Windows. BlueStacks creates a virtual machine (VM), or a software-based computer, that runs as an app like any other Windows software, and the Android smartphone system exists in that VM. Think of running Windows within Mac OX through Parallels Desktop, VMWare’s Fusion (s vmw) or Sun’s VirtualBox (s orcl) software: the concept is the same but instead of running a desktop OS within another, BlueStacks enables use of a mobile platform on a desktop PC.
  • Controlling PCs from mobiles. Even though smartphones are now outselling traditional computers, the latter is still a dominant force. Helping to bridge the gap between being mobile and having access to full, powerful desktop systems are a number of apps that help remotely control or access a PC from the handset. LogMeIn’s Ignition is a consistent top grossing app for the iPad, for example, (currently at number six on the list), and is available in an Android version as well. Citrix’s GoToMyPC is another favorite app in this regard for some. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this type of functionality become native on at least one major mobile platform within the next year — my money is on Apple’s iOS platform.
  • Mobile and desktop display sharing. Five years ago, I added a second monitor to my desktop for a big productivity boost. These days, you can add an external desktop monitor to an iPad through an accessory or use the iPad as a second monitor for a Mac computer through the use of software and a wireless connection. And although I don’t have a need for this solution, I caught an interesting video look at this use of an Android smartphone as a secondary display for a Windows computer, one that can be used to fully interact with Windows via the smartphone touchscreen.

These are just a few examples of what I’ve noticed, but perhaps the most obvious one has already come from Apple. At last October’s “Back to the Mac” event, Apple CEO Steve Jobs outlined six different iOS areas that will partially or heavily influence the next iteration of Mac OS X. No, we might not be able to run iOS apps from within the desktop system, but you can expect full-screen apps, a new Launchpad for applications, and automatic save features, just to name a few. I’d actually love to see the ability to run iOS apps within OS X Lion, even though all of these titles are of course optimized for touchscreen interaction.

Why would I want this? Because the mobile apps were designed within the tight contraints of limited hardware resources and small screen interfaces that require user focus. Instead of reading and approving blog comments within WordPress (see disclosure below) on the web, for example, I much prefer interacting with them within the WordPress mobile application. It’s often faster and I feel more focused on the task at hand.

I’ve also long held the belief that Facebook for mobile devices is designed better than the Facebook web experience. And there are countless other examples where the use of a mobile app is simply more enjoyable for me or more effective than a clunky desktop app. Part of that joy comes from the personal interaction through touch on a mobile device, but some of it is simply due to outstanding app design.

My own preferences aside, there’s plenty of evidence to illustrate this paradigm shift. Clearly Apple has seen it and is already working towards it. Surprisingly, HP (s hpq) too is in the mix here as the company has already stated plans to ship Windows computers with the ability to run the webOS operating system before the end of 2011. Outside of those two players though, I haven’t seen many examples that other major players in the computing industry are preparing for this merging of mobiles and desktops. Call it the “post-PC” era if you will, but it could be the next big disruption in both the mobile and desktop markets for years to come.

DisclosureAutomattic, the maker of, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at Tr

20 Responses to “The Big Mobile and Desktop Platform Merge Is Underway”

  1. ” I’d actually love to see the ability to run iOS apps within OS X Lion, even though all of these titles are of course optimized for touchscreen interaction.”

    Many Mac laptops in current use support multi-touch on their trackpad, and all macs (at least recent ones) can add MT support via a $70 ‘magic pad’ from Apple – I don’t know if the touch screen interaction would need particular addressing on the (i|Mac)OS platform.

    • Totally agree Peter: I use the Magic Trackpad with my iMac and make extensive use of the multi-touch capabilities. One subtle difference though: on a trackpad you have to “guess” where you’re touching an app on the screen instead of touching it directly since there’s no cursor. That could diminish the experience for some.

  2. Nicholas

    I wrote about OS X as a possible mobile platform shortly after it was launched on the desktop. My rationale was that a collaborative model of on the “desktop” was needed down the road. It is. But…

    My belief is that we will move to a disconnected desktop that is cloud based. The device to device model leaves to many gaps, such as personal file sharing — large or many files — or application power. I had suggested as well that companies like Adobe should create their own OS like system for workstations. Please don’t make this Air!

    A hub and spoke model with identity in the center is what we need. The device matters only contextually. Photoshop on the iPad is great for specific tasks, and I don’t want SMSs on my desktop… The docking mechanism will arrive. I don’t believe that they will be as successful as models where something like DropBox hosts my apps, another company hosts my files, and something else manages my cross device identity. Such a model allows a company like Adobe to lease the platform, and manage the virtual machine.

    Just some thoughts…

  3. True – i think as an industry we are not catering to developing for specific hardware or software anymore – as you said, we are all trying to create a great user experience, an outstanding app design – doesn’t matter what device it runs on – users want it to work seamlessly wherever they are on whichever device they are using. That in some way also adds to this convergence of platforms as well as devices.

  4. I think that you are correct Kevin. But I want to offer something a bit more radical please if I may.
    Virtualization brings us to the doorstep of a new era, with the possibility to standardize executables.
    Let me explain please. E.g. today we share between operating systems a lot of media file types. You can use AVI, MOV, PDF and DOC files everywhere. Consider the possibility that we also share executables.
    Its called Application virtualization. Where you do not virtualize a whole OS but a JeOS (just enough OS) to run an application!
    If we standardize that – applications from all major platforms will run equally on every OS (or hypervisor platform) which is now just a container. Fit to the hardware that it is installed on.
    I hope that I made sense …

    • Tal, I like what you’re saying! Sort of reminds me of the old JVM approach, but my guess is that platform owners won’t open up to the idea. Still, I see virtualization as a potentially big part of the future going forward. Thx!

      • Platform owners will have nothing to say about it actually Kevin. The executable type owner will provide the JeOS for the platform. It a wrapper for any app from its eco-system.
        Actually some kind of such progress is already in motion. I bet on VMware to be very strong around it in the mid term.

  5. Ah, memories of my own realizing this with my Treo years back, and then even more with my N95. Has been awesome to live mobile(-mainly) the past half decade. It will be cleaner for folks now that manufacturers are finally seeing that usage as possible.

    Kevin, what about working from the Atrix isn’t suitable for your day to day work if you don’t mind me asking?

    • I find the Atrix lapdoc system to be conceptually great, but lacking a bit in the execution. For example, I generally have 10 or more browser tabs open for my standard workflow — that’s needed on the Atrix since I can’t install apps — and it really starts bogging down the system. The hardware itself definitely has a first generation feel as well: some keyboard and trackpad improvements would be welcome, IMO. You’re gaining portability and data modularity (no need to sync between phone and “laptop” for example) but it comes at a price in terms of usability and even price when you consider the package is $499. Just my thoughts based on usage: others could be very happy with the Atrix as is, of course.

  6. Greg Y

    What about Windows 8?

    Microsoft tells us that Windows 8 is the new unified platform that will run on 3 screens: desktop, tablet and phone.

    If that’s the case, then Microsoft’s current Windows Phone 7 is just another stopgap solution. A stepping stone to Windows 8.

    Windows Phone 7 apps are written in Silverlight. There’s also a native environment called ‘Iris’. However, Microsoft refuses to allow developers access to Iris. This is because native apps can’t easily be ported. Microsoft wants all apps to be in Silverlight, so that the port to Windows 8 will be trivial.

    That’s fine. A Windows 8 phone will have a library of apps to run. The problem is for all the suckers who bought Windows Phone 7 handsets. No doubt these handsets will not run the ARM version of Windows 8. The other bad thing is that with Windows 8 for phones coming in 2012, Windows Phone 7 will never get fixed. Its missing features will never be added.

    • MSFT misses the boat with the Win8 strategy. Apple and Google are winning right now with a convergence of the three ‘modern’ platforms (smartphone, tablet, and IPTV) on the mobile OS stack. MSFT still thinks about convergence on the desktop OS stack, and …. #FAIL!

      • Greg Y

        It would be ironic if Microsoft failed, as it has been talking about “3 screens” for what seems like a decade.

        Microsoft gets the grand idea, but then fails to execute.

        iOS and Android are upscaling, but they are doing it after already being popular on mobile devices.

        Windows is downscaling, but has no foothold at all in mobile. In fact Microsoft situation is getting worse, as Comscore revealed this week that Microsoft’s share in mobile is still shrinking, confirming Windows Phone 7’s failure. Lose the phone market, you also lose the tablet market.

        That only leaves one screen… desktop.

  7. What is the android software that is being used in the video? is it iDisplay and has it gotten better? I’m looking for something to turn my Xoom into a second monitor when working remote with my laptop. I had heard bad things about iDisplay but in the video it looks pretty good.

  8. Stuart

    It seems obvious that people would want seamless integration across many device types and formats. Are mobile phones turning into MIDs with telephone capabilities? I can see the motorola atrix docking concept shifting into the norm in a few years time.

  9. Kevin, HP has more than one reasons to push WebOS on a PC. I agree with you on the overall assessment, and wonder if this mega trend is a merger or takeover:-) I’d like to mention that communications is one area where the boundaries between PC and mobile don’t exist any more — chat, voice, video applications.