As smartphones become more capable, they underpin larger parts of our digital lives. These leaps in technology, combined with the push to the cloud, augur well for a shift in how we think about desktop computing. Soon we’ll be using phones where we once used desktops and laptops. Samsung’s DeX technology is an early example, but others will follow.
Desktops and laptops are great for high performance creation and luxury consumption –editing some photos and watching movies on the couch. But even the thinnest and lightest laptops can’t compete with smartphones for portability. You need a bag for your Macbook but not for your iPhone.
As smartphones achieve market saturation (everyone who wants a smartphone now has one), they are more attractive as primary computing devices. According to Pew, as of 2018, fully one in five American adults use smartphones but do not have access to traditional home broadband. This number has nearly doubled in the past five years.
How have OEMs and developers responded to this trend?
Samsung launched its “DeX” (“desktop experience”) product in 2017 alongside the Galaxy S8 smartphone. DeX allows users to connect PC peripherals, including a mouse, keyboard, and monitor to a smartphone and run a functionally-limited desktop version of Android. Samsung sells a proprietary dock, but on S9 and later devices, all users need is an HDMI input to a monitor.
DeX won’t change anyone’s life – at least not yet. Most Android apps are not optimized for a desktop environment (they don’t expect mouse or keyboard inputs; aspect ratios and sizing are off), but the concept is good. Mobile chips, like the Snapdragon 800 series SoC (or Samsung Exynos, depending on the region) in the Galaxy line are powerful enough to run desktop applications, as are Apple’s A-series chips. It comes down to software support. It looks like that support is coming.
Android Q (Quite Minty?)
Android Q, the next iteration of the most popular operating system in the world, appears to support a desktop mode. As it stands, we don’t know too much about it other than Google appears to be sherlocking Samsung for the greater good. And it makes sense. With the advent of the supposedly commercially viable foldable smartphone, it’s possible that the next generation could grow up with a smartphone, tablet, and desktop device folded neatly in their front pockets.
Google seems to have realized this, and along with native support for foldable devices, Android desktop looks real and promising. We don’t know much about it as of yet (you can add icons to the desktop, switch up wallpapers, there’s an app launcher), but it’s a big play for Google.
With its significant cachet, capital, and (admittedly limited) experience with desktop operating systems, Google is better positioned to make a go of a mobile desktop experience than either Samsung or Microsoft, each of which made the effort (albeit by coming at the problem from different angles).
This desktop shift has important implications for how we can expect to work and the equipment we’ll need to get our jobs done. Cooling is a major bottleneck for mobile phones, as is battery technology. Expect manufacturers to release dock accessories that address both of these issues (perhaps making design changes to the phones themselves as well), and expect application developers to recognize the transient nature of work and build true productivity tools for highly mobile workforces.
Hotelling, remote work, BYOD – all of these areas will change as a result of the true mobile desktop. End user computing management will have to move quickly to keep up, building standards and policies to protect organizational data and ensure efficiency.
Workers, ultimately, will welcome the transition. Many are over-served by expensive, cumbersome devices as it stands – who wouldn’t want to be able to plug in and get to work? If you build the docks and stations, the workers will come. Right now, that’s the key limitation.
Mobile technology is on the rise, even as smartphone sales plateau. There is a place for traditional desktops and laptops (where intensive local processing is required, for example), but an increasing number of Americans rely solely on smartphones for connectivity. New technology like Samsung DeX and Android Desktop will allow those users to experience a richer mobile desktop environment, and will permeate the enterprise, changing the way we work.