Rajeev Singh-Molares is president of Alcatel-Lucent’s Asia Pacific region and a member of the management committee. He is responsible for overseeing the company’s APAC business including China and India, and is vice chairman of Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell - a Chinese government joint venture. In 2011, Mr Singh-Molares was appointed Chair of the World Economic Forum Global ICT Agenda Council. Rajeev joined Alcatel-Lucent in 2009 as Chief Strategy Officer.
Prior to joining Alcatel-Lucent, Mr Singh-Molares was a partner at Monitor Group, a global professional services firm that combines strategy consulting and merchant banking. Before that, he was at Chemical Bank in its Banking and Corporate Finance, Latin America Division.
Rajeev Singh-Molares holds a Diploma from the United Nations International School, a Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and a Master’s degree in International Affairs from Yale University.
The battle is over. PC and mobile phones are converging but still have their own special space. The large screen will become a home-based video centre from the armchair, while smart mobile applications will receive constant streams of context information anywhere, whether they need high or low bandwidth, and use new or existing technologies. With such a wealth of opportunities, there will be new winners appearing from nowhere, and surprising losers too. Companies such as IBM and HP leave the PC market in search of better margins, while companies like Apple, Google and HTC successfully continue to innovate, in the world of shortening product life cycle and rapidly changing user requirements.
As PCs and mobile phones rapidly evolve, the lines that separate the two will quickly fade while a new generation of devices emerges, with two features in common: all will be connected, and all will act like personal windows onto a vast pool of computing power that not only takes orders from users but also offer advice. These new gadgets will talk to each other and compute through the cloud over a wide array of networks, from wireless to wired. They will stay in touch constantly or on demand through bandwidths both broad and narrow, depending on the applications and other factors like urgency.
Gadgets and devices like PCs and mobile phones are unquestionably here to stay, with an estimated five billion handsets and more than one billion PCs in use today – enough to supply a device to every person in the world. Add to this booming sales of new computing devices like electronic readers, tablet PCs and portable game players, and it is clear that the number of computing devices will only grow over time to cater to different needs and interests.
In such a fast-moving environment, the PC versus mobile phone battle is clearly a distinction for yesterday. From the technological side, rapid advances in communications technology mean applications like videoconferencing and movie streaming are increasingly feasible from both the desktop and on the move. Many of today’s 3G networks can already handle such complex applications. The quality is only improving with a global roll out of 4G networks worldwide and the introduction of other new wired and wireless technologies. At the same time, innovative companies like Apple and Google are changing the very paradigms for how we use phones and computers, and what we use them for, by creating friendlier interfaces, opening up the applications development process and moving more computing power into the cloud.
The clumsy prompt-based computers of the ‘70s gave way to the mouse and more intuitive icon-based systems. Now the world stands on the cusp of the next generation of touch screen and voice recognition computers that will tap the muscle of the cloud over high-speed wired and wireless networks to make life even easier.
This powerful combination is bringing a wide array of new products to the market. They cater not only to a limited segment of consumers in rich, developed nations, but also to hundreds of millions of people in emerging markets who connect via US$20 and US$30 mobile phones, smartphones costing as little as US$100 and netbooks and other low-cost PCs that don’t cost much more. As communications technology improves and networking equipment makers reach economies of scale, the cost of basic and advanced mobile services will become even more affordable. This will put such connectivity within reach for billions around the world, further driving down product and service costs and driving economic development.
IT consulting firm IDC estimates smartphone sales will reach a hefty 472 million units this year, up 55 per cent from 2010, and believes the number will again double, nearer the one billion mark, by 2015. At the same time, IDC predicts that tablet PC sales will jump by more than three-fold this year, to 54 million units. Another market tracking firm, In-Stat, sees the number of tablet applications downloads soaring from under one billion this year to more than eleven billion by 2015.
The story is quite different for PCs where growth is clearly slowing, with the market showing a rare contracting in this year’s first quarter. While the global downturn is clearly responsible for some of the sluggishness, most industry watchers expect growth to slip permanently into single-digits in the years ahead, as less traditional devices like tablets and e-readers become more popular.
Fuelling the rapid growth in these more flexible non-PC alternatives are huge advances in hardware, especially in wireless technology that allow them to link up with the Internet to provide products and information that users want. IT research house, Gartner, estimates the number of mobile connections worldwide will reach 7.6 billion by 2015 as mobile applications boom and the networks become more sophisticated, helping to propel mobile data revenues to more than US$500 billion by 2015. Gartner adds that the rapid growth will also drive more advertisers to the wireless realm, with mobile ad revenue expected to reach US$20 billion by 2015, accounting for four per cent of all advertising budgets. The investment in creating packed based networks is proceeding all over the world, and this accelerates dramatically improvements in the end-user quality of experience. Therefore, it is both the new devices and the underlying networks that drive the growth.
In this new world of constant connections, the traditional PC will gradually be replaced in the home by a broader category of larger devices, led by the television. The TV will become a home-based centre that can be connected with wires or short-distance technologies like WiFi to the Internet, allowing users do everything from reading the morning paper to adjusting their thermostat from the comfort of their armchair. These big windows onto the network, by virtue of their large screens, will always have their place in the computing universe by offering the kinds of visual experiences that users cannot possibly get on the go.
Mobile application diversity
The world will be much more diverse outside the home, with smartphones and tablet-style devices as the main stars, supported by a cast of more specialised gadgets, ranging from portable e-readers to game players. For example, car-based devices can help drivers plan their daily commutes using a wide array of information from such diverse sources as traffic control, other commuters and even one’s own car, as it interacts with the road and surrounding traffic.
Future devices will not just wait for user queries, but will also try to anticipate their needs and offer advice using a steady stream of data from their surroundings and the Internet. To do that, applications need to stay on constantly to provide users with continually updated information. San Francisco offers a great example of a city hard at work on creating the kinds of virtual information flows that will make these devices tick. Realising that much of the traffic congestion is caused by people circling the streets in search of parking spots, the city has launched a trial program, using sensors in a third of its parking spaces. Incoming data will allow monitoring how full the parking lots are, and adjusting prices based on demand. This information that will then be accessible to drivers over their PCs and mobile devices, allowing them to chart out their journeys efficiently while on the road or even before they leave their homes.
In India, developers are working on ways to make the country’s limited pool of heart specialists more available to the millions of Indians who suffer from congestive heart disease by giving patients inexpensive wired stethoscopes, which then allow doctors to review their vital statistics remotely and choosing the best courses of treatment. Such simple devices offer examples of decidedly lower-tech, bandwidth-friendly applications that will improve lives while limiting their demands on communications networks.
Winners and losers
There are huge opportunities for both the PC and smartphone makers, as demand will only grow for computing devices in the years ahead. A prominent place at today’s table is no guarantee of survival in the future, in a world where new product categories could emerge in just months and disappear just as quickly, leaving time for only the most innovative companies to cash in. In this new world of shorter and shorter product lifecycles, consumers are likely to call more of the shots in new product demand, a role previously held by businesses, as devices become increasingly customised to the individual.
All of this means that the ultimate winners could be both everyone and also no one among today’s most prominent PC and mobile phone makers. Neither of these devices will exist in their current form, though it is quite possible that Apple, Lenovo or HTC will still be among the world’s most prominent brands. IBM may have invented the modern PC and was once a titan in the sector, and yet chose to yield the space to others in search of higher margins. HP looks set to do the same with its recent announcement that it will leave the PC business, and other former giants that defined a sector like Compaq and Palm no longer exist. Even my own company, Alcatel Lucent, chose several years back to leave the mobile phone space to focus on its core business of building the networks that support all of today wireless devices.
At the same time, Apple, which made its name as a PC maker, has risen from a near-death in the 1990s to define a new generation of smartphones and tablet PCs. Amazon, which earned its stripes as a retailer, has gone on to become a pioneer in electronic books and readers.
Clearly, the field is open to anyone who can innovate by discovering what the market needs and providing it quickly. That could be a maker of PCs, smartphones, or none of the above. It could be one of today’s giants like Apple or a growing newcomer like HTC, and no doubt, many of the big names of tomorrow do not even exist yet. Tomorrow’s computing world will offer devices, large and small, providing windows onto the knowledge that people and even other machines need for the hundreds of choices they make each day. It will be all about giving people the data and services they need based on their personal preferences and their lifestyles.