GE Capital's CTO sees the death of PCs, the rise of phablets

Eric Reed envisions more people moving to a single mobile device

Even though the term "phablet" draws a lot of snarky remarks, some workplace executives have lately come to appreciate large-screen smartphones. And at least one who should know even believes that smartphones with a display that's 5.5-in. or larger (like the new iPhone 6 Plus or the Galaxy Note 4) could replace PCs in a few years.

"The PC as we know it will disappear in three to five years," said Eric Reed, the CTO at GE Capital, in an interview. "We'll still have that PC functionality, but the form factor will change."

Reed heads up a team that oversees the mobile needs and desires of 50,000 GE workers and millions of GE customers, so he's given his prediction a lot of consideration. His duties have included working with different internal groups on pilot programs using the latest smartphones and tablets and he's even helped rule out a few devices in the process.

"We've seen that mobility is changing the enterprise.... We saw this originally with the introduction of the iPhone and now, tablets, but it's a shock for the enterprise how quickly they've been adopted and made their way into the ecosystem," Reed said.

"Longer term, what industry is wresting with is the right form factor, whether it's a phablet or not. But that's the direction things will go," he said. "If you marry the portability of a device with a ubiquitous connection via 4G wireless or Wi-Fi, then the three devices workers carry today -- tablet, smartphone and laptop -- are all going to morph into a single device."

GE Capital's Eric Reed GE Capital

Eric Reed, the CTO at GE Capital

That single device will still need "enough screen real estate to be usable on the go, and with plenty of horsepower," he said. That, he added, means something in the 5.5 inches or larger category -- what IDC and other analyst firms call phablets because they're phones that approach the size of small tablets.

And, that device will need to work seamlessly with a docking station that includes a keyboard and mouse and a large monitor for work on spreadsheets and other detailed, involved tasks, Reed said.

Behind that docked phablet configuration will be all kinds of software (and enterprise apps) that work both when the phablet is on its own or docked and possibly even across different operating systems. That, he conceded, will be the hard part.

Mobile apps for enterprise are key

Microsoft's recent decision to move Microsoft Office to the Apple iPad is an indication that vendors see the need for technology flexibility, Reed said.

"Moving Office to the iPad was a huge inflection moment for the industry," he said. So was last week's announcement that Walt Disney Studios will allow Disney movies to run on Android devices, as well as on earlier-available iOS devices, through the Disney Movies Anywhere app. That shows an unusual evolution of content on any platform, Reed said.

"We're seeing a lot more collaboration from people in industry who have been rivals," he said. "In order for this [convergence to a phablet form factor] to work, the old barriers have to break down...."

Reed has been working as an engineer at GE in various roles for 24 years, first on the industrial side and later on the financial services side. He's seen a lot, and recalls a number of devices that were designed to allow smartphones to be docked and used as tablets or 2-in-1's or laptops. Asus, Motorola and even the defunct Palm have tried different ideas through the years, but they never caught on.

The main difficulty is that software vendors or enterprises who build their own apps need to adapt their software to run on a platform that allows docking of a phablet, or many different phablets on different OSes, with other components.

Wireless Bluetooth is one way connections between phablets and components can be made, but it's not necessarily the best or only way.

"I'm seeing a lot more people carrying phablets around and the drive behind that is just that we love to consume content and it's easier to do so on a bigger screen," he said. "People want to do more and are tired of scrolling on a small device, while a tablet won't fit into a pocket or purse. I'm seeing a lot more people carrying phablets, because you still make a phone call on it."

Too big, too small or just right

Reed agreed with many analysts who have studied evolving mobile form factors and say that a phablet is still too small to create or edit a spreadsheet. But there are many productivity apps that will run on a phablet, with more to come. "I'm not sure we've seen the killer app yet. But the other day I downloaded an app to an iPad that made me think, as the space gets more mature, productivity apps will get off the ground and be practical on one device like a phablet."

The way enterprises should approach phablets is to create apps for workers and customers by "thinking mobile first, and not as an afterthought."

Reed's view that the large smartphone will evolve into a kind of hub device might not be shared by all, but he bases it on his own experiences and his own hardware arsenal.

"I carry a lot of stuff, including a company-issued phone, a company-issued laptop, a personal phone not for work and a personal iPad with a software container that separates work from personal," he said.

On many trips, he can get by with the iPad for PowerPoint and other presentations. His work smartphone is the Galaxy S5, which has a 5.1-in. display, putting it just shy of the 5.5-in.-size most analysts believe qualifies as a phablet. He also has a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard that works with the iPad for typing longer documents, which he said is "easier to use than the onscreen keyboard."

Pilot programs at GE Capital have also revealed what technology won't work out so well.

The move to mobile is bumpy

"Mobilization at GE hasn't been a breeze, and we, like most enterprises, were surprised how quickly some of the tablet stuff came in, so that was a really big learning point," he said. "Was it smooth and breezy? Absolutely not. We learned to be better at anticipating where things are going and better at adopting things quickly. We're quicker at getting them in and using them.... My team is guinea pigs for a lot of things and then we expand to let the business try something, or stop it and move on."

The percentage of different smartphone OSes in use at GE is roughly similar to the market at large, he said, although BlackBerry users are "still a large group for those that want a physical keyboard.... We cover the landscape from BlackBerry to iPhone to Android devices."

In addition to company-issued devices, those workers with Bring-Your-Own-Device smartphones and tablets are required to have their work kept in an encrypted container, which means it can wiped clean remotely if the device is lost or stolen.

Reed's prediction about the rise of phablets in three to five years is not shared universally.

"We've been hearing the PC is dead for years, but this talk is a continuation of the trend to mobile computing started when desktops went to laptops," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"The question is not so much is the PC dead, but are we evolving in our use of mobile computing and have different needs than we did 10 years ago," Gold added. "Form follows function. And with all that said, word processing is never going to go away, nor will email, nor spreadsheets. Yes, a lot of people who have minimal use of those functions are very happy with just a smartphone. So it's not so much is the PC dead, but how our computing needs are changing."

One example of that is how messages delivered at work have become shorter and less business-like in recent years, Gold said.

"There's a lot more informality now. Ten years ago, I would write a long memo to my boss explaining why I need to go on a business trip. Today, we just send a text that says, 'I need to go to MWC,' with no explanation really of why I'm going or so forth. So informality in communications is a bigger issue. Mobility is changing how we communicate."

In short, you might not want to bet on Reed's prediction. But given what he's dealing with every day, on a large scale, you shouldn't dismiss it out of hand, either.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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