By Neelesh A (B.E Computer Science & Engineering, 2016-2020)

Are the mobile phones of today so powerful that they deserve to be marketed using phrases like “speed of light in your hands”, “power when you need it”, “the treasure of your power quest” (I made that one up!) and yada, yada, yada? Are these phones giving their large-sized counterparts a run for their money, appearing to be as fast as them (at least on paper)? Will there be a future, at least in a parallel universe where these mobile devices can evolve beyond the wildest dreams of humanity in terms of the performance they offer and revolutionize computing? These are questions that have been flooding technical forums and discussion groups ever since the mobile devices, be it the phones, or the tablets, or the phablets became the mainstream electronic consumer products and a lot of debates are still on the go. Maybe the mobile devices will take over the mantle from the computers and banish them to extinction or the computers may still continue to be in a class of their own distinguishing themselves from mobile devices and making the consumers feel their need. Only time will tell.

The question of what can be done when a processing unit as powerful as a mainstream computer is packed in a hand-held form-factor is what lit up the quest for the exploration of the potential of these devices in all fronts. And that seems to be a quest that is never going to end. With every year that passes by, we witness exemplary improvements in the performance of these mobile phones that help extend their capabilities. Lately, we have also been exposed to the mobile versions of all our desktop applications, be it the light ones like word processors to the computer-intensive games and media applications. However, there are still restrictions on the mobile versions of such applications in a feature or two from their desktop counterpart. This step-back is not something the developer intends but is the consequence of the limitations of the software and hardware provisions of the mobile devices. This does not mean that these devices are any less powerful than the mainstream computers; it is just that no sustainable means to make them work as intensively as computers have been attained yet. On the other hand, these mobile devices have thumped the computers and shown what computer power coupled with real-time sensor data can do and be used for, which was never feasible on a mainstream computer.

Coming back to the limitations of the smaller devices, the first and foremost reason is their form factor. While mainstream computers can be as large as needed to accommodate necessary hardware to dissipate heat and provide ventilation, the mobile manufacturers cannot afford to do so. The cooling systems of the computers are what complement the intensive clocking of the processors for high-end applications, but, that is not the case in mobile phones. The mobile phones are supposed to be clocked at lower than capable speeds just to keep the device from heating up which can further hinder performance or might even have fatal consequences. The second influential reason is the amount of electric power on offer. The computers are either directly connected to AC or have large capacity batteries that can keep up with the energy hunger of the processors, as opposed to the smaller sized powerhouses on the phones which tend to run out quite swiftly. Hence the software on these phones is also designed in such a way to keep the processor speed in check and also ensure the longevity of the battery. This is the Achilles heel of today’s smartphones. Other than that you also have ergonomics into play. No matter how good the word processor is on a mobile device, the feel of typing on a glass display is no match to the tactile response from the keyboards of a mainstream keyboard and viewing the text on a bigger display. Agreed that accessories let you attach the keyboard to a tablet, but the software is still no good compared to a laptop. The same applies to games as well, the joystick versus the touch screen unless you can afford accessories.

With that said, the wait to see these differences vanish and for mobile devices to perform better than conventional computers is not long. The previous October or “Techtober” as the tech-society calls it, that went by, saw significant design changes in the hardware of mobile phones. Just like game-spec computers, game-spec mobile phones also got dedicated cooling systems based on liquid cooling technology to help dissipate heat, a result of the overclocking of the CPU and high GPU usage. When these systems are perfected and make way to all kinds of smartphones in the future, maybe, just maybe these smartphones might be able to actually equal their computer counterparts in terms of compute power genuinely and not just on paper. Manufacturers are also experimenting crossbreeds between computers and mobile devices in different form factors. One such example is the Chromebook concept that has the aesthetics of a typical laptop computer but runs software very similar to the mobile operating system from Google, which aims to extend the mobile and cloud experience to laptop-like computers. Mobile OEMs are also trying to reciprocate this extension of courtesy, by making accessories to their top-shelf phones that can dock them and let the user have a computer-like experience when a monitor and keyboard is attached. Yes, I am referring to Samsung’s Dex, Huawei’ EMUI Desktop and Ubuntu’s Touch brands which are still reviewed to have lackluster experiences but most of those are again due to the limitations mentioned earlier, and there’s every chance this concept might become a big hit in the near future and that is something that I am totally looking forward to. Imagine, carrying just a smartphone to work, docking it into your cabin station and working on it and undocking it when it’s time to head home; sounds cool doesn’t it? Again, only time will tell. In a parallel paradigm, a corporation renowned for mobile processors and GPUs announced a different kind of processor that can keep computers running like a smartphone. Jargoned “Always On, Always Connected PCs”,  these devices are supposed to be our mainstream computers that run computer operating systems but never need to be turned off and are always connected to a mobile network for Internet just like phones. Given the recent inception of these new classes of devices, flaws and problems are expected and subsequent iterations will perfect their design aspects making them worthy to be owned and used by consumers. Artificial Intelligence too is slowly making its way into mobile devices through dedicated chips and software tools that help phones study consumer usage patterns and adapt to them so as to provide a customized experience and also to assess and direct or conserve power when required to. Still, a lot of potential of AI in a mobile device remains unseen and someday when there are abundant innovations to exploit the available potential our lives would be so different.

If I ever make it through the years to come, I would like to see a technological ecosystem wherein I do not feel the need to trade off computer power for ergonomics or platform differences and be able to do whatever task I feel like wherever I am at and still be able to stay mobile when I have to without feeling a change. By change I mean details like the lumens of my display lamps, the audio level of my ringtones and alarms, the wallpapers, the mammoth of a task that was blitzing on my desktop, the number of apps and files that were open already in the background, the seamless switching of my music from my home-theater to my Bluetooth headphones, handed-off to whatever mobile device I decide to carry along and a million other things that can flood this article making it unattractive, but trust me you would like it all. This might sound like a bizarre fantasy of a geeky-writer but I believe things are already moving in that direction, to a future where this is the reality, as I type this and as you read this.

To the people in the parallel universe, I agree with you too. With many issues like privacy, security breaches and monopoly of software on the rise, the sustainability of the mobile phones is uncertain. Maybe smartphones won’t be a thing in, say, some 10 years time. Maybe we would all have accepted that change and tucked away all our current phones as classics too, or we could still be using similar phones that are way more powerful than our current ones, but running on operating systems that are not solely supplied by Apple or Google. Who knows what the future has in stock, the best we can do is speculate and focus on what we think could be the sustainable choice no matter how the tables turn.

However, one way or another computation is going to be a part of our lives and that computation is still going to be done by a device, a stationary or mobile one, and that device is going to have better performance than what we are exposed to now and if there still exists a distinguished class between these stationary and mobile devices not a lot is going to be lost in terms of the potential of these devices and what is on offer from each of them to a fellow consumer. Only the question of where and how and when we need a certain task to be done is going to decide which device serves you.

Say hello to Neelesh! Here’s something he’d like to share…

Neelesh

“Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.”

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