Palm, Apple, Google and the whole mobile device thing

Mobile seems to have become an issue as technology companies start to think about the future. Part of this consideration of the future has to do with the fact that some experts think that we are into our final decade of gains from Moore’s Law and once that goes kaput Silicon Valley turns into the high technology equivalent of Detroit.

Technologist Ray Kurzweil took a longer view of things pointing out that the silicon microprocessor is part of a an accelerating progression in data processing that reaches all the way back to the first printing press and punch card looms. Based on this longer pattern thinkers like Michio Kaku may be right about a continuing progress in computation through the likes of molecular and quantum computing could extend this still further.

Combine this with more service-orientated models like SaaS and Google Apps, even the Google search engine itself and the future is thin devices serviced over ubiquitous connections by online services. Since everything is in the cloud a ‘thick client’ such as a PC or a Mac is less of a requirement. The markets for PCs and Macs is pretty saturated and in a decade the upgrade path could grind to a halt because of Moore’s Law nuking the improvement-driven industry.

I don’t think that the personal computer is any more likely to disappear than the mainframe computer or workstation before it, but I think that is role may be reframed as it is no longer the dominant computing paradigm. Personal computers are ideal for content creation and for time when the connection is broken with the network. The very nature of urban landscapes (and my house) means that wireless reception can be very hit or miss no matter how fast the network is supposed to be.

Other speed bumps in this road to a new computing paradigm is the poor rate of progress made in battery capacity and device power consumption in areas such as screens, wireless signal transducers and memory. A second less technical, but more problematic issue is the resistance of media companies to cloud-based storage.

The mobile web-enabled thin client (iPhone, iPad etc) is apparently considered to be the future, which is the reason why things got ugly between Google and Apple as they both closed in on this computing singularity. Its also the reason why HP grabbed at Palm like a life-raft. This isn’t about the next quarter, but about the next decade and beyond. Part of this battle will be based on who has the relevant pieces of intellectual property which is why Struan Robertson hypothesised that the acquisition of Palm was as much for its 1,600+ patents in the mobile computing space as it was with the need for an under-performing wireless device company.

One thing has puzzled me though is how quiet commentators have been about Qualcomm. Whichever way you look it Qualcomm is going to be a key player intellectual property around key aspects of mobile device development: wireless connectivity standards, transmission, media delivery, low-power displays, application development platforms and semiconductor designs. In many respects, Qualcomm is more than the elephant in the room, it can be the king-maker or the dragon-slayer in this battle. Qualcomm has scalped 2.5 billion USD from Nokia alone to settle a series of court cases around patent infringements that took up a lot of resources at the Finnish company. If this were the PC market Qualcomm could be the new Intel or Microsoft.