It recently dawned on me that I had absolutely no reason to own a large power hungry tower to perform the majority of my computing tasks. I browse the web, watch videos, listen to music and write articles and software. The first four are child's play for mobile devices, let alone workstation grade hardware. While writing software on a mobile device is still in its infancy, it's quickly gaining traction with apps such as AIDE proving that a full featured IDE isn't just a pipe-dream.
Not one of these tasks are particularly processor intensive relative to today's impressive hardware, and there's no sign that this trend of high performance mobile processors will cease to continue into the future thanks to the heavy investment into smaller and lighter mobile platforms.
Mobile is the future
According to statistics released by ComScore earlier this month, over 100 million US citizens own a smartphone device, a 13% increase since October. Almost half of these are running Android, an open operating system which permits a vast amount of flexibility in both the phone hardware itself, and peripherals which function via standardised ports such as micro-USB.
The quick uptake of modern smartphones means we're now carrying a powerful personalised computer everywhere we go. With phones set to contain ARM Cortex-A15 based dual-core and Cortex-A9 quad-core processors, it won't be long before the regular consumer has enough power in their pocket to make a traditional PC irrelevant. Today, the hurdle between mobile and desktop applications isn't due to a lack of processing power or available software. Our phones are capable of processing a fair amount of data, but the heavy lifting is often done on a server potentially thousands of kilometres away in the cloud. The real barrier for mobile computing is the interface.
Desktop users use PC hardware because it facilitates efficient productivity. The keyboard is large and ergonomic to allow for extended work sessions, the monitor(s) allow simultaneous windows to be shown, and you get the pointer speed and accuracy of using a mouse. It's not difficult to see why someone would opt to work on a desktop over a phone or tablet, regardless of how fluid these newfangled devices may be. But what if we could replace the tower but maintain the peripherals?
Docks aren't just for replenishing battery
Ubuntu, a Linux distribution supported by Canonical Ltd, recently announced 'Ubuntu for Android' which integrates the full Ubuntu desktop experience into supported Android handsets (only the one prototype for now). The premise is that you purchase a dock with ports for standard desktop peripherals, set everything up, and as soon as you dock your device it switches into desktop mode as if it were any other PC. The only difference is that you can access native Android resources through Ubuntu such as the messaging app.
The beauty of this concept is that it allows you to have a single piece of processing equipment which can be easily transported and swapped out. All your preferences, documents and media, bookmarks etc. are all carried with you in a pocketable full featured PC. This solves the productivity issue, whilst significantly reducing power usage and unnecessary doubling up of computing equipment. Oh, and it also solves my software development requirements!
My computer is a Matryoshka doll!
If using a smartphone as a portable 'tower' does take off, the concept could initiate an uptake of technologies similar to ASUS's Padfone concept. For the uninitiated, the Padfone (that's such a bad name, with a suitably bad unveiling) is a tablet with an inbuilt underside dock for a phone. The premise is that an ASUS smartphone becomes the processing device for the tablet once docked, thereby reducing the cost of purchasing two individual devices. That's already pretty cool. But ASUS are also well known for their Transformer tablets. These tablets can transform into netbooks by docking the tablet into a thin keyboard docking station. It just so happens that the Padfone tablet supports this same functionality! So now you can use the one processing device to switch between a netbook/ultrabook, tablet and phone. Once you have the keyboard dock, you also have standard ports for PC peripherals, which brings us right back to Ubuntu for Android - that's potentially four computing platforms powered by the one processor!
Will traditional towers be a thing of the past?
Unlikely. There will always be users who require local high performance systems. Such users include PC gamers (although there are cloud gaming services like OnLive), media editors, and specialities such as compiling large software projects. It's important to note that if Ubuntu does get its way, it'll take many years before it's picked up by consumers as their main desktop experience. Hurdles such as the need for a dock (which is difficult to standardise), adjusting to a new OS, and being limited to higher end devices does restrict the idea to those who are more technically competent. But hey, we can always hope, right?