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Beyond Smartphones: Dumb Screens

Almost two-thirds of Americans are using more than one computing device—defined as a smartphone, tablet, computer, or netbook—according to a poll released this week. Unsurprisingly, the poll, which surveyed 2,000 Americans, found that 83 percent want access to their documents in the cloud. Of course they do. When 63 percent of the population has multiple computers and one-third has more than three, keeping them synced is a pain best consigned to the early ’00s and late 1990s, where it belongs.

The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of a company that provides presentation software in the cloud, helped crystallize a question for me: Do we want only dumb screens? By dumb screens I mean the ability to get whatever content and services you want over the web, as opposed to stored on a hard drive or locked to a device. So far, the answer is that we want it both ways. In the future I lean toward dumb terminals, with one exception: the smartphone.

Right now, the high cost of mobile broadband access and slow speeds (plus intermittent Wi-Fi) make the idea of dumb terminals impractical for most people. As Wi-Fi becomes more pervasive and LTE networks roll out, I think we’ll see those barriers drop. So it makes sense to think about what devices should be dumb and exactly how dumb they should be. I think a TV makes a great, dumb screen. On my laptop, I’d give a hearty plug for a dumb screen (look at the Chromebook, for example), and tablets are an area where I lean toward dumb screens, too. Smartphones are the big outlier.

My Smartphone’s No Dummy

Most of my interactions with my Android handset center around the Web, e-mail, and a few apps. On occasion, I take photos and share them from my phone and yes, I still use it for voice calls. So today my smartphone isn’t a dumb screen. Here’s why it never will be:

App Stores. I wish this particular reason would disappear, though I doubt it will happen. Thanks to the ability of Apple (AAPL) to get people to buy into apps, we are fast approaching a $14 billion app economy. As someone with iOS and Android devices, as well as a general world view that wants a unified platform, I wish HTML5 apps would get going in a major way so I can just get what I need on the Web, as opposed to downloading them from OS-specific or device-specific app stores. It drives me crazy that I can’t get some apps on my Android handset that I use on the iPad, and that if they are offered, I have to buy them twice. So I’d love for apps to stick around, but I want the barriers to installing them on any device to fall, thanks to HTML5 and permissions to access the hardware on devices.

Smartphones link to the digital world. As the most portable and soon-to-be-most ubiquitous of the computers consumers own, smartphones are increasingly becoming the sensor that connects the real world to my digital one. I want it packed with sensors, cameras, and enough intelligence to ensure that these things all work together to upload not just files to the Web, but context on my day-to-day wanderings, too.

There’s still a strong argument for dumb screens to have different interfaces, depending on their size—and perhaps position—in the home. Smaller screens require touch, while larger ones should use gesture. Because I’m a writer, my laptop needs a keyboard, while my tablet and phone don’t. The debate between smart and dumb screens used to have a component pertaining to how one would interact with them; increasingly, I think it’s less a keyboard that makes something “smart” than what kind of information it needs to store and process. Thanks to Web services, I think there’s little we’ll want to store and process on TVs, laptops, and even tablets. Smartphones, however, will still require more brains than screen real estate and a good set of radios to ensure image processing, the interaction of the sensor, and yes, those darned apps.

As we overload our homes with computers and connected gadgets—15 percent of Americans use four or more a week, according to the Harris poll—the idea of dumbing down the device and relying on Web services has strong appeal. Sure, offline access to documents and other services is a stumbling block, but that’s becoming less and less a problem for those willing to pay for mobile broadband access. How dumb should our devices get?

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Higginbotham is a writer for GigaOM.

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