Is the smartphone revolution killing your computer?

For a large majority of people worldwide, smartphones are going to become their principal computing device.

Mobile tech is pulling wildly in two seemingly opposite directions, which means this holds true for both the wealthiest nations as well the most destitute.

On one end—the one you’re probably thinking of, given that you’re reading this article—you’ve got the ultra-blinged-out models, sure to be held aloft at the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. We’re talking 4K streaming video capabilities, immersive virtual reality, the works.

On the other, we’re looking at equally incredible feats of engineering: dirt-cheap, bare-bones smartphones that will set the consumer back no more than $50.

Both ends of the spectrum are set to radically change the face of how everyone uses mobile tech to make their lives better. The next wave in the smartphone boom is going to be revolutionary, and it’ll snatch the crown of personal tech preeminence from the PC’s liver-spotted hands.

Making it mom-friendly

There’s no debating that mobile tech is exploding. Smartphone chipmaker ARM is so confident in the inevitability of mobile dominance that it has set a year for going mobile-only: 2016.

That leaves us less than 23 months to toss out our towers with the garbage, folks.

That leaves us less than 23 months to toss out our towers with the garbage, folks.

The proclamation comes accompanied by the announcement of new chips last week sporting a Cortex-A72 processor and Mali-T880 GPU (Graphics Processing Unit—the equivalent of a video card for your mobile device). The new GPU boasts a performance 50 times that of chips from five years ago, using 75 percent less energy than chips from three years ago.

More tasty specs: The iPhone 6 ports Apple’s A8 chip, which is a full 50 times faster than the chip in the original iPhone released in 2007. Its GPU alone is 84 times faster.

“Futuristic” gaming and multimedia concepts, like 4K video streaming and online 3D multiplayer, actually already exist. The latest chip from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 810, will find a happy home in upcoming headsets from LG, HTC, and other Android device makers.

This is just what’s happening today. Give the market six months and we’ll be looking at even more goodies that would have been inconceivable a couple years ago. The growth is exponential.

It’s indisputable that smartphones will have sufficient technological capacity for the large majority of people in the developed world. Heck, for most folks out there, they already do. The average person in the U.S. uses his or her personal computer for word processing, Internet connectivity, maybe multimedia entertainment (music, movies), and little else. Data storage used to be a sticking point; the superiority and proliferation of cloud storage has long rendered that moot.

Smartphones already have the power to do all of this and more.

This isn’t to say that high-powered towers will disappear completely, particularly in the professional world. It goes without saying that many technical jobs require significantly higher processing power than that used by your average Candy Crusher. But those massive computers will become specialist tools, and most people will opt for the simplicity and convenience of their pocket machine.

There are obviously parts of your day when using a bigger screen makes far more sense than staring down at your thumbs: watching movies, photo manipulation, and anything involving typing. As such, the only element missing to make the leap is a strong hardware ecosystem of easily interconnected screens. ARM’s lead mobile strategist James Bruce is on the same page: “Simple things like how easy it is to hook up to a big monitor—those physical issues need to be addressed.” Once that’s in place, we’ll just hook our smartphone up to a screen, keyboard, headset, and so on whenever necessary.

It’s indisputable that smartphones will have sufficient technological capacity for the large majority of people in the developed world.

As far as existing tech goes, both AirCast and Chromecast work great, but they’re just beginning to show up on the radar for your average consumer—and they require specific hardware on the other end. It’s not quite mom-friendly, not yet.

As soon as this support begins to be automatically built in to all the screens we use, however, personal PC use should heavily taper off (in fact, global PC use is already going down the tubes). That means that you’ll have access to all your personal programs and data no matter where you are, and so will everyone else. The possibilities for sharing information will simply explode.

This means you’ll have access to all your own jams no matter where you go, yes. But just over the way in the developing world, smartphones are poised to change absolutely everything.

Developing the world

The advent of cheap cell phones in the developing world was enormous, and similarly inexpensive smartphones are just around the corner.

This is nothing short of huge for populations that never got the opportunity to connect with the world via PC in the first place.

The market for low-end smartphones is surging just as the price is plummeting, estimated to hit the sweet spot between $30 and $50 for the most basic models. In countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Vietnam, Egypt, the Philippines, and Indonesia, this will bring those earning $2,000-$4,000 into the smartphone market.

The demand for connectivity in the developing world can’t be overestimated. In Sara Corbett’s fascinating look into the impact of the cellphone on global poverty back in 2008, Nokia’s human-behavior researcher Jan Chipchase explains that, for many people the world over, “having a call-back number is having a fixed identity point.” For populations constantly under threat of displacement by violence, natural disasters, or desperate economic conditions, a cellphone is not only something to keep in touch with home, but also an invaluable business tool, a source of learning, and even a way to remotely connect with healthcare.

Mobile payment technologies have brought millions upon millions of people into the formal economy. In rural Kenya, M-pesa users increased their income by 30 percent upon the introduction of mobile payment.

The demand for connectivity in the developing world can’t be overestimated. 

In India, well over 5 million people are learning via Bharti Airtel’s mEducation platform. In many countries, mobile can be one of the only sources of reliable information about taboo subjects like HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, and STIs.

Patients in isolated rural communities in Tanzania are diagnosed by dermatologists in Dar es Salaam using a smartphone app. On a more Big Data level, health organizations can analyze mobile search patterns to detect outbreaks of diseases before they become epidemic. Cheap mobile gadgets that can be used to quickly test for diseases like HIV have the potential to make a huge difference in rural populations.

The mobile payment opportunities are what’s driving people in developing countries to get their own phones (instead of sharing a “village phone,” like the programs started in Rwanda, Uganda, Cameroon, Bangladesh, and Indonesia back in 1996).

Iqbal Quadir, Bangladeshi expat and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at M.I.T., explains: “Poor people are poor because they are wasting their resources. One resource is time; another is opportunity. Let’s say you can walk over to five people who live in your immediate vicinity. That’s one thing. But if you’re connected to 1 million people, your possibilities are endless.”

Cheap smartphones will connect people in developing countries not to millions but to billions.

Having recognized the economic potential of going mobile, local governments are already creating structures to support the acquisition of smartphones. In Ghana, the government recently voted to slash import taxes on smartphones, effectively cutting the cost of all devices by 35 percent. The Malaysian government has offered a rebate scheme on smartphones for low-income youth since 2012.

Cheap smartphones will connect people in developing countries not to millions but to billions.

The biggest remaining barrier: data cost. Your average 500MB data plan (by the way, as of November 2014, the average U.S. smartphone user downloaded approximately 2GB per month) costs the equivalent of 18 hours of work at minimum wage in India, more than 28 hours in Nigeria, and over 34 hours in Brazil and Mexico.

Zuckerberg’s own Internet.org is one of the players working on changing that. The free app is designed to give access to the basic functions of the Internet—like Google search, Facebook, Wikipedia, weather, and health information—totally without charge.

There’s also Google’s Project Loon (which definitely wins the name competition, if you ask me), whose “balloon-powered internet” designed to bring connectivity to remote areas around the globe appears to actually be working.

Whether one it’s one of these programs or some other force that succeeds in bringing computing power to everyone’s hands, only time can tell—but the trend is unstoppable. From Denver to Dar es Salaam, the smartphone is going to eclipse the PC for good.

Photo via janitors/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)