How WiFi 6 and 5G will force the merger of PCs and smartphones

Once you can provide a high-bandwidth, low-latency solution that meets or exceeds a wired connection, you can move into the cloud – and that will force a revolutionary change in hardware design.

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[Disclosure: almost all of the companies mentioned in this article are clients of the author.]

I was at Qualcomm recently and taken though the advancements in 5G, WiFi 6 and millimeter wave (mmWave). I also recently had a call with Ruckus, arguably the leader in large venue wireless. They’ve been deploying WiFi 6 technology in churches and sports venues and even though we don’t yet have many WiFi 6 devices, they’re reporting significant increases in access point capacity, improvements in management and better data throughput. At one church, Ruckus has been able to go from 90 people per access point without performance degradation to 400 people per access point with no complaints (not streaming video, browsing the web) – and that’s without WiFi 6 devices.

One of the interesting things they’re looking at doing is giving WiFi 6 users a dedicated frequency, which should work kind of like an HOV lane on highways. Those on the new technology, at least initially, will see a huge bump in performance over and above what they’ll already get with WiFi 6.

Having this massive bump in wireless network performance is going to force us to rethink what we deploy for personal productivity and where the processing takes place. With enough bandwidth and the sharp reduction that both 5G and WiFi 6 (not to mention mmWave) will provide should allow us to eliminate our deployed wired networks. And if you never have to physically plug into a network, you can truly free yourself from a lot of the expensive wired infrastructure and its related costs.

Rethinking the desktop

Regardless of the wireless technology we currently have most desktops are still defined by the wired world that existed in the early part of this century. We mostly still have phones on our desks, PCs or laptops that use wired connections, and our productivity applications run locally.

Yes, we have looked at solutions like Thin Clients, but the performance tradeoffs overcame the cost and support advantages so that that market saturated years ago and remained a unique niche largely also dependent on wired technology.

Microsoft anticipated this with their Virtual Desktop, where the entire Windows experience is moved to and managed in the cloud, and nothing resides on the PC.

But much like we rethought terminals when PCs became common and massively changed their design, we’ll completely rethink smartphones and PCs with this because we won’t need both.

Smartphone as a PC

Microsoft initially floated the idea of a smartphone was a PC with their Continuum offering. The best example of this was with the unreleased HP Pro x3. It was on spec an incredible device with few drawbacks, and it’s somewhat ironic that HP also had the best Media Center PC but that too never released. I’ve often thought that a recurring problem with both HP and Microsoft is they give up on a project just short of getting it right. Microsoft’s Zune offering was one release short of being truly competitive, and they missed doing the first iPhone by a decision (a good chunk of the company wanted something like an iPhone instead of the Zune, and it would have beat Apple to market).

But with this kind of wireless connectivity where you get wireless performance that meets or exceeds wired speeds, with the right device you could potentially displace both smartphones and PCs.

Anticipating the smartphone PC

Now Microsoft knows how and has demonstrated they can scale Windows with Continuum and they have continued to work in smartphone interfaces (many of us use the Microsoft shell on our Android phones today). They have a version of Office that runs natively on smartphones, and with Virtual Windows 5G and WiFi 6 (along with mmWave) you can get full PC performance on a phone. But today’s smartphones don’t have the peripheral support we demand on a PC and we still need to deal with the display, keyboard and mouse.

You can certainly carry wireless keyboards and mice, but that’ll detract from the portability of the device. The display is a bigger problem, which will probably have us rethinking head-mounted displays, and the phone either needs more ports or we need a Bluetooth version that works more like Intel’s Thunderbolt. Yes, Bluetooth is also getting a big bump, but it isn’t yet at Thunderbolt levels, suggesting an interim solution would be a smartphone with more USB C ports, dedicating one for the display.

To replace a desktop PC you could have a smart monitor where much like a TV, the smartphone component would be built-in, and you’d end up with a less expensive, wireless, all-in-one with WiFi 6 support.

But regardless of which direction you take, and they aren’t mutually exclusive any more than laptops and all-in-ones are today, we’ll need to eventually rethink the hardware to take advantage of this new wireless capability.

Wrapping up

A wireless connection with wired performance is a game-changer. But it will take a few years for OEMs to realize they could completely redesign their PC lines to make use of this wireless performance and maybe take a stronger run at the smartphone segment at the same time.

Lenovo, who still has a smartphone business, likely has the inside track here. It may take a few years but, with this kind of wireless performance, there’s a good chance that smartphones and PC will merge, and the result will be very different than anything we currently have in the market.

It might even be a foldable device, but it’ll be close to a smartphone in size, provide cloud-based PC performance, use some version of a head-mounted display eventually (foldable display initially), favor voice input but have strong keyboard options and, once fully mature, be kind of amazing.

I can hardly wait!

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