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Why Your Phone Will Soon Replace Your Laptop

Almost every major consumer tech player is betting on the explosion of mobile Internet, but most of us still can't envision life without our laptops. Sure, iPhones and Blackberrys are great, but is this big paradigm shift really going to happen?

First, Silicon Valley's big bets: competitors like Google (GOOG), News Corp (NWS) and Microsoft (MSFT) are angling to dominate the mobile space in advertising, music and hardware, and Apple (AAPL) COO Tim Cook recently rebranded the iPhone-maker a "mobile device" company. Research firms like Gartner (IT) and Juniper claim that location-based mobile services and the mobile ad market are going to explode in value over the next few years, and Facebook, Twitter and Google have intensified competition over the carriage and indexing of users' of terse declarative sentences, called by turns "tweets," "status updates," or "buzzes." The employees of these companies are believers in mobile, too; Facebook mobile engineer Joe Hewitt told me several months ago that Facebook, like many of its Valley cohorts, expects the vast majority of its traffic to be from mobile phones within five years.

Research is beginning to show the tech sector's bets come to life. Sales of smartphones like the iPhone increased almost 24% this year, and a whopping 41% in Q4 -- even though overall mobile phone sales, which includes regular "dumb-phones," dropped slightly according to Gartner. And people are using those smartphones for more and more of their reading. The Pew Research Center released research this week saying that more and more Americans are reporting the Internet as a major source of their news, and many of them say that they're reading and commenting using their mobile phones. ArsTechnica paraphrases the report, saying:

National and local TV stations still dominate the news cycle for most Americans, but the Internet now stands third in the list, ahead of national and local newspapers. Additionally, the majority of news consumers say they use two to five websites per day to get their fix--a number we think sounds about right--but a surprisingly high number (21 percent) rely on that one favorite site to get everything they need.

Pew points out that consumers who don't just rely on newspapers and TV are much more interactive with their news, too. A full third of those with cell phones said that they get their news while mobile, and 37 percent of those with Internet access reported having contributed to the creation of news themselves, commenting on it, or disseminating it via Facebook or Twitter.

But this flies in the face of common sense, doesn't it? Even those of us who love our Android phones or spent every waking hour on a Blackberry have a hard time feeling satisfied with browsing the Web for more than a few minutes on those things. We almost always revert to a computer with a bigger screen. What's going on here? Are the big companies wrong?

The secret may be that the act of "browsing" as we know it may be headed for extinction. That is to say: the better our Web tools get, the less time we have to actually spend poking around on the Internet to get the things we want.

This more efficient mode of Web-surfing relies on the strength of the "recommendation engines" that help us shortcut our searches. Netflix (NFLX) is perhaps the best example of the primacy of the recommendation engine: the company awarded a $1 million prize last summer to an engineering team that came up with a better way to predict which movies users would like, and the company is holding a new contest this year, based on its users' demographic data. With all the fuss over recommendations, academia has also started to plunge into the discipline in earnest.

Internet radio, another form of "recommendation engine," is making surprising headway in music. Market research firm NPD reported at the end of February that illegal music sharing is dropping, and digital music-buying is going up, thanks largely to Web radio tools like Pandora, Slacker and Last.fm, which calculate radio stations based on a user's favorite bands in order to get them into new music. ArsTechnica says that the data show that "free Internet radio is tied to a 41 percent increase in paid downloads."

Of course, our human friends are some of the best recommendation engines. Semantic Web tools like Glue are helping more and more of us digest our friends' opinions on books, movies and music, and social news sites like StumbleUpon are doing the same thing for websites and news. There's also the increasing propensity for stuff-sharing on Facebook, complete with links. And tools like Tumblr are helping us more quickly find and "curate" the weird things we like online, so that we can call upon a database of our favorite stuff to show to others.

Twitter is making perhaps the largest contribution. Once derided as pointless by critics, Twitter has become the ultimate human news-sifter. New York Times media writer David Carr nails this phenomenon in his recent piece on why Twitter will endure. He says:

Not that long ago, I was at a conference at Yale and looked at the sea of open laptops in the seats in front of me. So why wasn't my laptop open? Because I follow people on Twitter who serve as my Web-crawling proxies, each of them tweeting links that I could examine and read on a Blackberry. Regardless of where I am, I surf far less than I used to.
Of course, if you're going to take advantage of all this, it will require some work. As our devices get smaller and the volume of news and information grows, building a small, cogent list of Twitter followees will become less luxury than a necessity. Some of the other sifting tools I've mentioned will also become more crucial, as will samurai search engine skills. But don't be wary; it's about time we stopped "browsing" and started "reading" again.