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How the PC Is Merging With the Smartphone

We are seeing the start of a long-term trend to make PCs look and act more like smartphones, and to bring to the PC some of the functions of the phone.

Back in the early days of handheld devices, Microsoft dubbed its contender the “Pocket PC” and, indeed, designed it to emulate a small version of a Windows PC, because the PC was the main — often the only — way to perform digital tasks. My, how things have changed.

Over the last seven years, since the introduction of the iPhone, the PC has gradually been dethroned by the smartphone (and to a lesser extent, by the tablet) as the key digital device. PC sales have fallen significantly in recent years, racking up their worst annual sales ever last year, while smartphone and tablet sales have soared. Almost all of the energy that developers once put into making software for laptops and desktops is now devoted to making mobile apps and mobile websites.

PCs aren’t going away anytime soon. The standard laptop, with a large screen, built-in keyboard and roomy touchpad, is still superior to smartphones and pure tablets for doing more complex tasks, and for doing several things at once. Tablets are catching up on some of these features, but a machine like the MacBook Air still beats them for many scenarios, and that includes even Microsoft’s Surface line of hybrid PC-tablets. The MacBook Air and some other PCs now even boast tablet-like battery life.

But just in the past month, it has become clear that a serious effort has begun to merge the smartphone and the PC, or at least to bring some of the more familiar features of the surging smartphone to the tanking PC. We are seeing the start of what I expect to be a long-term trend to make PCs look and act more like smartphones, and to bring to the PC some of the functions of the phone.

It’s essentially the reverse of the old “Pocket PC” idea.

These newest efforts are being driven by the two big smartphone-platform owners, Apple and Google, each of which also has a stake in PCs — Apple with the Mac, of course, and Google with its more limited Chromebook laptops, which have been gaining popularity.

At each company’s big developer conference last month, new features were announced that move toward this smartphone-PC blend.

At Apple’s WWDC event, the company announced a set of forthcoming features, called Continuity, which make the Mac a companion to a nearby iPhone. The features — which will be present in the next Mac OS, called Yosemite and due out this fall — include the ability to use a Mac to make or receive phone calls via an iPhone.

Another part of Continuity, called Handoff, lets you start something on an iOS device — an iPhone or iPad — and finish it on a Mac, or vice versa. You could, for instance, start an email on an iPhone, and the Mac will display a special icon that lets you resume that same email on the computer, right where you left off. Or you could start writing an email or document on the Mac and finish it on the iPhone or iPad.

There was more. In Yosemite, standard SMS text messages, not just Apple’s proprietary iMessages, show up on the Mac. You can even send new texts from the Mac. And the Mac can now automatically turn your nearby iPhone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, without touching the phone.

Even the design of Yosemite looks a lot like the design of iOS, right down to the icons and a new Today panel in notifications.

A few weeks later, Google held its competing event, called I/O, and announced its own phone-PC blending features. It said its forthcoming version of Android, so far just called L, would feature “one design for mobile, desktop and beyond.”

Among the new features that will unite its Android and Chrome OS platforms: You’ll be able to unlock a Chromebook with a nearby Android phone. Android’s Google Now feature will come to Chromebooks. And, as with the Mac, Chromebooks will be able to handle calls and texts.

Most importantly, some Android apps will simply run on Chromebooks, though the company said that effort was in its “early days.” And the Web apps that are the mainstay of the Chrome OS will look and feel like Android apps.

Both companies had taken some smaller steps in the past to merge the phone and PC. For instance, Google’s Chrome browser, which was then purely a PC program, became a key Android app, as well. And Apple gave its Macs a phone-style notification panel, and even a full-screen alternate way of organizing and opening Mac programs, called Launchpad, that looks a lot like a huge iPhone screen.

The two rivals have a strong business reason for merging their mobile and desktop platforms: They want to keep you in their ecosystems, in their worlds, whatever device you’re using. And even for a computer pioneer like Apple, the key product in the ecosystem is now the smartphone, not the computer.

So, how far will the merger go? Will PCs and phones one day have just one phone-like operating system? I think there’s a good chance of that, but there are a couple of obstacles.

First, mobile apps would have to be written in such a way that, when installed on a laptop, they display the richer functionality laptops offer, and which laptop users expect. And even the OS itself would have to behave somewhat differently on a laptop. Google made it clear that it is heading down this path; Apple not so much, though the latter company already has a strong record of allowing apps to look and work differently on tablets and phones.

Second, both Google and Apple are acutely aware that a third competitor tried to fully merge a phone-style user interface and accompanying apps with a traditional desktop OS, and ran into trouble. That company is Microsoft.

As is well known, Microsoft’s Windows 8 included both a mobile-like section with touch-centric, full-screen apps, and the traditional Windows desktop, with apps better suited for use with the mouse and keyboard. It didn’t go over well with consumers, and Microsoft has since modified the system to bring back features like the desktop start button, and to add features like the task bar to the mobile-style start screen. You can even now skip the mobile interface and boot directly into old-style Windows.

But I don’t see Microsoft giving up on the idea, partly because, unlike Apple and Google, it is strongest in PCs, and much weaker in phones and standard tablets. Its Windows Phone and desktop Windows operating systems are growing closer. Microsoft may have had the right idea, and just executed it poorly.

So Google and Apple are doing it differently, for now retaining separate operating systems for their mobile and desktop clients, but finding subtler ways to blend them.

It may be unfolding slowly, and with some hiccups. But I believe that the merger of the smartphone and the PC will roll on.

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