Why Mobile Innovation Is Blowing Away PCs

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Editor’s note: Guest author Steve Cheney is an entrepreneur and formerly an engineer & programmer specializing in web and mobile technologies.

On the heels of the latest Android phone, the Sprint HTC EVO, and as we approach iPhone 4, it seems like mobile devices and platforms are innovating at about five times the pace of personal computers.

Rapid advancement in mobile is often attributed to the natural disruption by which emerging industries innovate quickly, while established markets like PCs follow a slower, more sustained trajectory.

But there are deeper fundamentals driving the breathtaking pace of smartphone advancement. Component vendors supplying to smartphone OEMs have evolved a much different DNA than those supplying to PC makers. Smartphones are an evolution of embedded systems, not PCs, and embedded markets have long favored vendors who don’t simply provide the most highly integrated chipsets, but who can also partner with OEMs to drive system-level integration and software at a rapid pace.

Hardware / Chipset Integration Differences in Smartphones vs PCs:

Intel’s monopoly in PC processors and peripheral chipsets has caused PC innovation to stagnate. “Chipsets” sit alongside a CPU and integrate auxiliary functions such as wireless and peripherals. By “bundling” chipsets with processors, Intel neutralizes competition on PC motherboards. Exceptions such as graphic chips exist, but Intel essentially “decides” 90% of what will (and won’t) be included on next generation PCs.

A great example of this is the notable lack of GPS chips in laptops. The fact that I have to type in my starting address on Google Maps on my $1,500 MacBook Air serves as a constant reminder that PC innovation has plateaued (even Mac hardware is controlled by Intel). It’s no surprise people reach for their iPhone when in front of a computer—the mobile experience is often better.

GPS is just one example of the ever-widening gap between PCs and smartphones. Sure, PC makers could add a separate GPS chip to the motherboard, but why hasn’t Intel pursued location as a core piece of IP in its chipsets to drive a better mobile experience for laptops?

It’s simple – they don’t need to. Intel loves high margins, and their market monopoly allows them to pursue margin at the expense of innovation.

In contrast, smartphone vendors have traditionally competed in a much more fragmented supply chain, integrating at a breakneck pace just to survive.  Today’s 3G wireless chipsets integrate GPS, Bluetooth, and 802.11n on a single chip. And the competition between great companies like Qualcomm and Marvell not only spurs further innovation, but also drives vendors to differentiate in system integration and software.

System Level Integration and Support Differences in Smartphones vs PCs:

System integration is the term for how hardware and software combine to create a finished platform. In PCs, Intel dictates the pace of hardware releases– OEMs essentially wait for CPU updates, then differentiate through inventory control, channel / distribution and branding. Intel and Microsoft win no matter which PC makers excel – they literally don’t care if it’s Asus, Dell or HP.

In the smartphone world, it’s the opposite. Dozens of component vendors fight each other to the death to win designs at smartphone OEMs. This competitive dynamic forms an entirely different basis for how component vendors approach system integration and support.

Consider Infineon, which supplies the 3G wireless chipset in the iPhone. In order to stay in Apple’s graces, Infineon must do everything necessary to help the hardware and software play well together, including staffing permanent engineers in Cupertino or sending a team overnight from Germany. Do you think Intel does this for Dell?

This level of commitment helps smartphone OEMs to iterate platforms much more quickly than they could do so alone. If Infineon slacks off at Apple, other vendors are pushing to get inside the next iPhone. This competitive dynamic simply doesn’t exist in PCs, which is actually a fascinating side-story to why Intel and Microsoft have traditionally failed in most embedded (non-PC) markets.

Software Platform Differences in Smartphones vs PCs:

We all know Apple deserves credit for starting the first wave in smartphone OS innovation and for restructuring the wireless industry. And though we harp on Android for fragmentation issues, Google’s commitment to moving the OS forward is noble considering Microsoft has only released 3 Windows refreshes in the past 10 years, and is yet to release a smartphone OS, 30 months after buying Danger.

The competitive interplay between Apple and Google will continue to help smartphone software outpace PCs. But iOS and Android also benefit wildly from the structure of the smartphone industry. Apple and Google are pushed not just by each other, but by the symbiotic advancement in chipsets and the system integration work of component vendors that I detailed above. The entire smartphone innovation value-chain just works.

It’s this overall combination of component advancement, system integration, and software which will continue to drive unprecedented innovation in mobile. Meanwhile, the WinTel monopoly is taking PCs along a slow linear path, where features and user experience drag way behind available technology.

As we approach the next evolution in computing as ushered in by the iPad, Microsoft and Intel are under extraordinary pressure to recover in mobile. But not only do they lack the technology to succeed, they will also fall victim to the inbred structure they’ve created in the PC industry. It’s very likely that within five years, tablets, smartphones, and other “mobile devices” will have permanently left PC innovation behind. And I’d argue this is a good thing for both the progression of exciting new technologies, and for consumers.

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