Are Mobile Devices repeating PC History?

We should all be familiar with the quote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (George Santayana). I am going to take this idea of sequential repeating of history and apply it to mobile devices using PC history (Consumer Level) as a basis. Hopefully this process will help me better understand where mobile devices might head in the future. For the purpose of this post I am going to break down PC history into 7 time periods.

  1. Single Purpose Machines
  2. General Purpose Machines
  3. Basic Operating Systems
  4. OS Wars
  5. Online Applications
  6. Consumerization
  7. Web Applications

When talking about these categories I am referring the consumer facing technology of the time and how that has progressed through the years. Also these times won’t be defined using dates because of the ambiguity.

Single Purpose Machines

Determining what was the first consumer electronics device could be an entire book in itself. To simplify the argument we could look at the capabilities of these early devices. You can argue that it might of been the radio, TV, or perhaps the original pong home system, but all of these devices serve a single function. They aren’t capable of doing more than their intended use. The devices originality was enough to draw users. There were no needs for extensive lists of features or manipulation of information.

It’s quite easy to see the similarity with the earliest cell phones and how they were designed only to make phone calls. They served a simple function much like phones of the time. Connect to another phone to transfer information vocally.

General Purpose Machines

Storing user data and acting upon that data start becoming popular. Within consumer electronics the Apple I and shortly after the Apple II are released allowing user to input, store and manipulate their data.

Cellphones start adding in features for speed dialing, holding basic contacts. Character displays and custom ringtones are developed into the machine. Featured phones with extended features. Basic multimedia, camera, SMS and other features are integrated on the device. Users are able to input data as well as do basic data manipulation.

Basic Operating Systems

As a taste for computing is developed, people start putting more information into computers and require new ways to manipulate it. Applications could run on the older systems but there wasn’t a good way to manage multiple applications on a system. The early operating systems solved this by laying down a framework for file storage, access, manipulation and execution. The initial consumer OS’s are command line based (Unix, MS-DOS).

Phones start storing more complicated data: full contacts, notes, maybe multimedia (audio, images). The integrated environments that were used to store a few hundred phone numbers and names are no longer useful. With the knowledge of Graphical User Interfaces the first phone operating systems aren’t command line based. This is where the Mobile OS starts to get tractions with Palm OS, Windows CE, Symbian.

OS Wars

The explosion of applications makes the operating system more vital than ever before. Three contenders line up to win the consumer market share: Microsoft Windows, Unix based Linux and Apple OSX. During this time the three components are extremely aggressive in their business tactics, marketing and even litigation.

The mobile OS battles that are so prevalent today between iOS, Android, WP7 and possibly Blackberry. We are probably all familiar with the business tactics, marketing and litigation that is occurring right now in an effort to win consumer market share.

Online Applications

Concurrently with the OS Wars the internet and specifically the web seep into the general public. Something that was mostly used for financial transactions starts being used for personal communication and entertainment. Each OS has their own Email clients, Instant messengers, online multiplayer games and most importantly web browsers. Internet connected software of the time (excluding browsers) either retrieve information from a remote location or transfer it. The processing and display of the information is done locally through the application. The limitations of the web at the time prevented more advanced web sites that enabled the functionality of these online applications.

The current popular applications for each Mobile OS are online enabled apps. The ease of internet access through mobile means (3G, LTE, Wifi) means all applications can take advantage of the internet. I’m not sure if the limitations are web development or local hardware based but the developer consensus is that quality apps need to be developed locally.


The combination of OS Wars driving innovation along with the web driving e-commerce make computers extremely popular. There is an insane growth in home computers and internet start ups. Start-ups start depending more on user based than actual revenues. Hoping that they could eventually monetize their large numbers. This insane growth is followed shortly by the infamous dot-com bubble bursting. Multiple companies were bought for billions of dollars only to be sold at significant losses later. Those that weren’t bought burned through their investment capital quickly and declared bankruptcy.

This is where mobile devices are at right now. Year over year the number of smartphones increases. This expansion is driving development and the quest for users. One recent notable acquisition would be Instagram with nearly no revenue being purchased by Facebook for 1 billion dollars. Another example is flipboard who starts running at a lost for 20 months and then begins inserting ads. What was a promising applications with high expectations hasn’t made any recent waves.I want to make it clear I am not implying anything, I’m just trying to find similarities.

Web Applications

That leads us up to the present era of web apps. Beginning in the consumerization browsers starting getting more complex and web developers started creating tools for more user interaction in web pages. Java, Ruby on RAILS, AJAX, Python, PHP and other techniques translate desktop applications to a web browser. Now email, instant messengers, budgeting tools can be contained within a webpage. No longer do you have to install or update software, the most up-to-date software is accessed all the time through a browser. The movement away from the desktop and to the web makes the underlying Operating System less important. Eventually we might now even care about the operating system we would only need a capable browser. I’ve given my Mother my CR-48 (Chromebook) and she loves it for the basic things that she does on the web.

I’m sad to see that the original ideas for the iPhone were abandoned as well as the subsequent dissipation of WebOS. Both of these were supposed to rely heavily on web development techniques. The tools used to create web apps would be the same used to create mobile apps. Eventually I think that the industry will move towards it once the tools and mobile browsers can support it better. Once this occurs, just like before with the Desktop operating systems, the mobile OS will not be as important. Currently it seems rediculous that (which has such a nice website) needs to support an iPhone, iPad, Android and Android Tablets. There are ways right now to do cross development for the different systems (Unity 3D, Adobe AIR) but there is still the hurdle of compiling, validation and submitting to the "Application Store" for each system. While it is not completely there I do see some hope in the Google plus mobile site. It’s at least a start to where I think mobile devices are heading.