TIME Big Picture

How Mobile Changed the Game — and Questions About Its Future

Mobile Future
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Mobile ended Microsoft's dominance, saved Apple, made Facebook and could upend Google. So what's next?

When I first started doing industry analysis in 2000, my focus was heavily on mobile computing. Our firm has a legacy of PC industry analysis, and at the time I joined, we were embarking on the major shift from desktop computing to mobile computing.

Mobile computing in those days referred to notebooks and laptops, which were really nothing more than portable desktops. That era set us up for the massive global mobile computing era we are now entering into, where the shift is from notebook computing to truly mobile computing with tablets and smartphones. Reflecting on these paradigm shifts helps me appreciate not just how much has changed over the past 10 years, but also how much will again change in the next 10 years. Mobile changes everything.

What’s Changed?

Mobile ended Microsoft’s dominance. The once near-monopoly on desktop and laptop computing was completely broken by mobile computing. Along with Microsoft’s monopoly ending, so too has the old guard of PC computing been challenged by mobile. Intel, for example, is still struggling to be dominant in the mobile computing era, while Qualcomm has taken its place. Once dominant PC vendors like Dell and HP now only serve a small market, while Apple, Samsung, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Huawei and ZTE are the hardware darlings of the mobile era.

Mobile saved Apple. One could argue the iPod was a key player in ushering in the mobile computing era, as it paved the way for key technologies to be miniaturized and commoditized. That served as a catalyst for smartphones to become possible. The iPod led to the iPhone, which is the business that drove Apple’s recovery.

Mobile could upend Google. Think about some recent data from Flurry that shows how apps have overtaken the mobile web in terms of engagement. Who does this impact the most? Google. Google’s business is heavily built on the web and a web browser. Declining usage of mobile web browsers and web browsing in general is not good for Google’s core and largest business. I’m fond of the observation that Google de-emphasizes apps, because time spent in an app is not time being spent using Google’s search engine. In fact, this observation explains quite clearly why Google is not pushing tablet apps the way many believe the company should be. Tablets still drive significant web browsing time as the usage of tablets more closely resembles that of PCs than smartphones. If Google was to emphasize tablet apps, which could possibly cause web searches from the platform to go down in favor of app usage over web usage, then again, Google’s biggest business is hurt.

Mobile made Facebook. Facebook in the desktop era was nothing compared to Facebook in the mobile era. Facebook will be a key part of bringing the next billlion consumers into the online conversation. These customers will be mobile-first and mobile-only. It’s conceivable by the end of 2015 — and almost certainly in 2016 — that Facebook could have over 2 billion mobile users. Facebook’s present and future hinges on mobility.

What’s Next?

These are just a few of the dramatic changes mobile has enabled. Many more are to come over the next two years. Will the current dominant players in mobile survive the shift from one primary mobile connected device to multiple devices per person? Apps took over the mobile web but what will overtake apps in the near future? What is the role of an operating system or a platform in the future? Or is there one? Do apps move to the cloud or stay native? Do operating systems move to the cloud or stay native? How many modems driving connected experiences will we have per person? How many touch-based interactive glass screens we will have on our person, in our homes and in our cities? All these and more are questions I like to think about.

I’ve been working in this industry since 1997. I’m also related to one of the foremost technology industry historians. I’ve been taught to view this industry as a journey. On a journey, the scenery changes. Mobile has been a driving force of disruption, causing sweeping changes in the dominant players from yesteryear. “Post mobile” will bring about many new changes. Crystal balls are not necessary. The only sure way to survive is to recognize paradigm shifts and embrace them when they happen. Innovation brings about change. Both are constant.

Bajarin is a principal at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology-industry-analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the Big Picture opinion column that appears here every week.

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