The iPhone is about to do for smartphones what the iPod did for digital music players: put one in everyone's pocket.
That's the message Warren East, CEO of ARM Holdings, brought to Computex Wednesday in a talk about the future of mobile computing.
The idea of putting computing power into a small device has been around for years. Apple put out the Newton personal digital assistant (PDA) in the early 1990s, followed by U.S. Robotics with its Pilot (which later became the Palm). Adding computing functions to mobile phones, to create smartphones, happened soon after. Now, demand for Internet access while on the move is making small computing devices even more popular. Even the computer industry has taken up the challenge, with its ultramobile PC.
"This has been an emerging market for a long time," East said in an interview. And the hype surrounding the iPhone will put smartphones in the lead as demand for Internet access at all times takes off, he said.
In fact, he believes that smartphone sales could double this year if the iPhone proves to be the hit that some people expect. Sales will end up close to 200 million units, or double last year's figure, if the iPhone is a hit, East said, because smartphone demand overall will take off. "Within the next few years, smartphones will make up half the mobile phone market," he said.
East stands to gain from such a prediction, of course. ARM processing cores are in around 95 percent of all smartphones, so his company will be a direct beneficiary of the growing market. They are also in certain iPods, leading to speculation that several of its chip designs will end up in iPhones. East declined to comment on the matter, saying Apple prefers to keep such details secret.
Another key to the success of smartphones and other small devices is software. A lot of computing software that works well on a PC has trouble on portable gadgets because of the smaller screen size. Mobile web browsers, for example, don't shrink all Web sites very well. ARM is working with software makers on rewriting their applications to better fit smaller devices, East said.
The ultramobile PC is also an area that East doesn't mind competition from, since ARM processing cores go into them, too. The new product category is also boosting interest in devices such as smartphones, he said. Besides, the mobile industry has an advantage over the computer industry's ultramobile PC: its expertise in power consumption.
Mobile phone makers have worked for years to ensure users have plenty of battery power on their handsets. Companies focused on the ultramobile PC come from a far different background, where power consumption has not been a big issue until recently. That gives the mobile phone industry an advantage, East said.
It won't take long to see if East's predictions are correct. The iPhone will be out in the U.S. around the end of this month. It may end up creating a smartphone craze, as the iPod did for digital music players. At the very least, the much hyped product should spur interest in small computing devices.
"Apple's iPhone ... is clearly the most widely anticipated product the industry has seen for years, potentially ever," said Michael Ounjian, a research analyst at Credit Suisse, in a recent report.