2017 is the year that computers became phones
Until very recently, you could feel reasonably sure that a computer was, well, a computer. To use the word might conjure up an image of a digital device that processed information, but for most people, it would have simply been those familiar boxes with a keyboard, mouse, and screen.
The smartphone changed all that. While many people still insist on a distinction between a "proper computer" and a smartphone, so many of the things that people associated with computers — reading the news, sending emails, playing games, or doing work — were taken over first by phones, and then by tablets. Now, even Microsoft, whose mission it once was to get a PC on every desk, admits that its desktop Windows has a fraction of the market. Computing as a concept and a practice is dominated by the smartphone.
Yet if that shift has already happened, the actual, functional division between types of devices has mostly remained: We use smartphones like smartphones, and laptops and desktops like traditional computers. But this year, that finally started to change.
2017 was the year in which the traditional computer started to become a smartphone.
Perhaps the clearest sign occurred near the end of the year when Microsoft and Qualcomm finally announced the arrival of Windows computers that run on the latter company's ARM chips. For decades, Windows computers have run mainly on Intel chips — those familiar Pentium and Core brands that anyone who's shopped for a computer is no doubt familiar with. But ARM processors, which are more efficient and less power hungry, are the ubiquitous ones found in smartphones and tablets.
What the new Windows devices promise is a computer than functions like a smartphone. If Windows on ARM works as advertised, the touchscreen laptops will turn on nearly instantly, have the kind of battery life that lets you leave your charger at home, and also have a persistent LTE wireless connection. That means they can be used online anywhere, for a long time, and have the same "open it up and get to work" feel of a smartphone or a tablet.
The change it represents is, like many changes in tech, incremental yet significant. After all, some laptops with Intel chips, including those from Apple and Microsoft, already have all-day battery life, while some have cellular connections, while others turn on nearly instantly or have touchscreens. But in combining all of those aspects into a usable smartphone-like laptop, what you get are the benefits of the smartphone applied to the once-clunky, slow computer. It further redefines computing away from something you do in a specific place, attached to specific networks, or for only short periods of time.
But if those are the practical changes, it's also a sign that the smartphone has come to be the dominant idea of computing. While once people may have wanted smartphones to be more like traditional computers — to have keyboards or to run desktop-style software or to be more open — the flow of influence is now clearly the other way round.
The change was, of course, preceded by baby steps toward mixing computers and touchscreen devices, mostly in the form of hybrid tablet-laptops like the Microsoft Surface and Apple's iPad Pro. But this year, even those devices started to blur the lines and become more indefinable. In particular, the newest software update for iPads made them much more functional as primary work devices, adding things like an easy way to find and access files, and allowing users to multitask easily, in part by letting them simply use two or more applications side-by-side. Once again, the idea of what constitutes a "real computer" changed.
If, in one sense, the iPad Pro and Surface represent the tablet becoming more like a laptop, they also indicate that the logic of the smartphone is now dominant.
Technology is so often structured around a defining idea. Computers have "desktops" like the physical workspaces they're reproducing; electric cars have accelerators and designs just like combustion-engine vehicles; even the smartphone was for years predominantly a phone before that function become secondary. It is only when the underlying ideas that shape how we think about tech change that the technology itself starts to change.
This year appears to mark when such a change finally took hold on the computer — and it's arguably for the better. Whether it's laptops turning into pick-up-and-play devices, or tablets becoming work devices, what unites all these changes is the smartphone way: that tech should be easy to use, last a long time, and keep you connected wherever you are.
And as time goes on, it's likely we will see more and more conflating between types of computers. After all, this year was also the year Samsung launched its DEX idea, with which you can plug a smartphone into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and have it work like a desktop.
It's just one more sign that 2017 will go down as the year that all computers inched ever closer to becoming smartphones.