Smartphones and iPad-style devices may point to the future of portable computing, but analysts and researchers say that laptops and desktops don't face extinction just yet.
That's because no single device so far can claim to be the all-in-one package for every casual consumer and business worker. Instead, analysts suggest that many people will continue to use several devices for different situations.
"The world is changing, but there are still some limitations on the devices," said Leslie Fiering, a mobile computing analyst at Gartner. "That's why – depending on your usage pattern – you may be able to go more toward mobile and mobile only, but we're not at a place yet where a mobile device can replace the full-featured devices."
Tiny screens and cramped typing interfaces represent perhaps the biggest obstacles to no-holds-barred mobile computing, according to researchers. But labs have steadily developed new technologies that could someday eliminate the computer keyboard and mouse.
Computing devices also continue to grow ever more capable and shrink in size, especially as the much-heralded "cloud" helps absorb computing power that once resided within a clunky PC. Such advances are apparent in Google's Nexus One smartphone, which packs about the same computing power as a laptop from 2005.
"From a computing power perspective, mobile devices are already there and data speeds are increasing rapidly," said Anthony House, a spokesperson for Google.
In interviews with tech analysts and lab researchers, TechNewsDaily explored why PCs will remain more than just museum relics during much of the next decade, even as new mobile computing devices and interfaces emerge.
Everything in its place
Here's the reality of computing for now: People can carry a smartphone for e-mails and texts on the go, hop on the PC for serious writing or numbers crunching, and cuddle up with an iPad on the couch at home.
"Unless you're really strapped, you're going to want a phone, you're going to want a thin device to take with you to the library or on public transportation, and you'll need a laptop or desktop," Gottheil told TechNewsDaily.
The good news is that prices for smartphones, tablet computers, laptops and desktops will only continue to fall, Gottheil noted. That should help encourage ownership of many devices, rather than trying to get by with only a smartphone or iPad.
Whether or not a person can survive solely with their mobile device depends on their computing needs, according to Fiering, who studied situations where mobile devices could take over from full-feature computers.
Younger consumers who do mostly social networking by updating Facebook or Twitter could move more quickly toward using only smartphones or tablet computers. But they also need laptops or desktops to write their school papers, and a smaller group still covets the biggest, baddest computers for hardcore gaming.
Older consumers may use their home PCs as extensions of their work environments, or as home servers to coordinate different media systems. Such uses could be diminishing, but won't go away, Fiering explained.
A CEO could rely upon just a smartphone to supervise and delegate work, and a sales representative might put an iPad to good use during a meeting. But business users who create content all day by typing documents or working with spreadsheets will likely feel more comfortable and efficient working with a large screen and a full-sized keyboard.
"If you have to produce large, high-fidelity documents in a very short period of time where you can't wait a day to get to another system, these mobile devices are not going to be able to take the place of traveling with a laptop or having a full-featured PC," Fiering said.
Working in small spaces
More efficient computing power and wireless communication already make mobile devices a formidable force. Now researchers hope to solve the problem of shrinking "real estate," where typing interfaces and viewing displays become too unwieldy at small sizes.
"I see two major issues that the mobiles haven't been very successful with yet, which are basically input and output," said Dan Siewiorek, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute in Pittsburgh.
Siewiorek's group has investigated computer interfaces ranging from voice recognition programs to new text-based input based on single, continuous strokes. But the researchers themselves mostly use laptops, and Siewiorek has an additional computer monitor and keyboard connected to his laptop.
Some people have begun trying to type on the virtual keyboards of iPads, Siewiorek noted. But he added that the virtual keyboards come at the expense of display space, and typically lack tactile feedback for typing. Projected keyboards or air-typing that's recognized by a smartphone camera face similar constraints.
"It'd be really nice if typing went away, because that does restrict the user population certainly as people get older," Siewiorek said. "But speech recognition hasn't quite gotten there."
Just getting 10 percent of voice commands interpreted wrongly by software can dramatically slow down input. But Carnegie Mellon researchers have investigated software such as Voice Predict, a product of the company Travelling Wave, which tries to finish spoken or typed words before users complete their spelling.
An older concept from 1995, called Digital Ink, allowed users to write notes on napkins or any surface using a pen-like device that simultaneously saved a digital copy of the written characters, numbers or sketches. It also permitted users to scribble down replies to e-mails and then hit send.
Typing may yet prove difficult to replace, but at least new display and interface concepts have blossomed. Carnegie Mellon researchers envisioned a camera and projector combination back in 1995 that has since come to life in other forms.
Finding a bigger display
For instance, MIT researchers unveiled their "Sixth Sense" project in 2009 that combined a smartphone's webcam with a tiny wearable projector. The device gives users the ability to turn random surfaces into displays, augment a book or newspaper with additional multimedia or Internet info, and use gestures that the smartphone would recognize as certain commands.
"We've been working on these projector-based interfaces, because that's a way to get a large screen in a small package," said Pattie Maes, director of the MIT Media Lab's Fluid Interfaces research group. "It's still very mobile but you can basically have a large projector interface."
More recently, a German project called Imaginary Interfaces has tried to go a step further by completely freeing gestures from any frame of reference, such as the surface of a wall or hand.
So even if PCs stick around for the short term, they almost certainly won't stay the same. After all, the multi-touch screens that dominate today's smartphones swept the market within just a few years since 2007, when the iPhone first went on sale.
"Hopefully there will be other types of interactions such as free gestures, not just gestures limited to the surface," Maes said. "I certainly hope we're not going to stay here for another 40 years with keyboard and mouse."