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I don't own a smartphone. I consider there to be numerous issues with them:

They are unequal devices. Smartphones are unapologetically devices for consumption. In this regard they differ critically from PCs, because PCs are equal devices in the sense that the same device is used for creation and consumption. This means that anyone with a PC can create as well as consume, if they so wish. This cultural equality is diminished by an exodus to devices which can only really be used for consumption.

They are not real network clients. Smartphones have powerful CPUs and fast network connections, except that you aren't actually allowed to use these resources in any meaningful sense, because doing so consumes battery power, and people don't want the precious battery life of their phones drained unnecessarily.

So there's a massive amount of computer power and network connectivity that in practice you can't use. This leads to an even more unfortunate and ridiculous consequence: you can't implement many existing network protocols on a smartphone. Or at least, you can, but not without draining the battery; but in practice, this isn't done.

For example, a disproportionate number of IM (XMPP, etc.) clients for, say, Android, appear to rely on a central server operated by the software maker, with some proprietary protocol between the client and that server, rather than simply implementing the protocol directly. In other words, there appear to be enough issues with implementing such protocols on smartphones that it isn't done. This leads to the next issue:

They have led to massive centralization. Part of the “cloud” movement is probably driven by the fact that while smartphones have substantial computational resources, you can't actually use them because of battery life. So instead the computation is done in the cloud, creating a dependency on a centralized entity.

How many of these smartphone applications being sold would still work if their makers went bust? By comparison, there is much PC software no longer sold but which is still cherished and used.

They have ruined web design. But I should probably write a whole article on that. Suffice to say however that I am very, very tired of the epidemic of (often massive) position: fixed headers on websites nowadays.

There are no secure smartphones. See this article.

They are devices of unclear alignment, or of clear malevolence. We can of course first rule out all iOS devices. This leaves Android. Supposedly, with Android you are free to install software from arbitrary sources and replace the OS. Except that these capabilities are all too often restricted by device manufacturers or carriers.

Except that if you look closely this doesn't quite add up. With Android devices there is a distinction between “rooted” and “unrooted” devices, which sounds suspiciously similar to “jailbroken” and “unjailbroken”. With a PC, I don't have to perform some arcane operation to actually have control of the device. Moreover, it seems to be common to discriminate against people who have the gall to “root” their device, or to disable some functionality of the device if such “rooting” is performed.

I believe there are even online banking applications which reserve the right, in their terms, to detect if a device is “rooted” and refuse to operate on them. In other words, discrimination against people who excercise control over their devices is common, and even sandboxed applications are permitted to detect this.

There is thus a prevailing expectation that people will not excercise control over their device, to the point where those who do are in a sufficient minority to be discriminated against, and have the functionality of their devices reduced for doing so. I suppose the PC equivalent would be a PC where, if you ever ran “sudo”, certain functionality would be permanently disabled and many applications would refuse to run forever after.


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    I don’t disagree with a lot of this, but I personally like smartphones but in a limited way: I like that they consolidated a bunch of what used to be single purpose devices, so I don’t have to carry them all. Instead of a keychain flashlight, portable translator, handheld GPS, pocket digital camera, and electronic organizer, I can have one multifunction device.

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      This this this! I couldn’t agree more. Even in the PC-area, the secure boot “virus” is trying to creep people away from installing any operating systems that haven’t been signed. Even the same arguments for “security” are used as with banks which may tell you that they won’t let you do a transaction with an “insecure” rooted device.

      I don’t own a smartphone, and tell anyone who wants me to to go to hell. I can’t stand some of my friends, and now even family, using their devices while we spend time together in a restaurant, pub or somewhere outside in the city. And no, it’s not because there was no dialogue or something.

      The point about “consumption” is a very strong one, and it really makes you think: I bet most programmers became programmers by playing around with problems they observed on a PC. It is as simple as installing an IDE and learning a programming language. I don’t see an equivalent for smartphones, and more and more kids don’t even own PC’s these days. If you want to deploy an app on iOS, you even need to sign your XCode-installation and obviously have a Mac. I bet most iPhone-users are on Windows. For Android, developing on Windows is painful, so you are left with Linux as a beginner, and even there it’s hard to dig around in this unstable mess!

      Apps teaching you how to program most of the time look more like toys rather than real tools. But what do you expect? you can’t do much with a smartphone anyway.

      As sad as it is, I have little hope left for the future of open source software development as we know it. It seems as if more and more young people are drawn away by the big companies to be turned into willing, paying consumers. If I had a company and saw this opportunity, I’d probably do the same. The smartphone though is just a symptom of this development, the disease already started on the PC. Only those kids left with a PC really are able to join as new developers. And the longer I observe the “market”, the more I notice that the number of kids with a real computer at home and joining open source projects are becoming less and less.

      In the end, I’m sure that kids would rather play Minecraft than listen to a talk by the highly charismatic and sympathetic Richard Stallman, or play a puzzle on their iPad rather than thinking about solving programming problems. There’s always an app for that already.

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        I’m not surprised or even worried that kids are more interested in playing Minecraft than listening to anybody talk. I felt the same way as a kid, except I had LEGO. That doesn’t mean they won’t grow up to discover and appreciate his ideas, it probably even starts them on a path toward it. I think it also has some deeper consequences: it nurtures the desire to build and explore. Maybe it even gets a few of them to start to question why it’s so fucking hard to tinker and explore in other situations, like, why is it so difficult to make a stupid little app for my phone? Every time I watch Inventing on Principle or The Future of Programming I get a little hopeful that these ideas will start to materialize on this or another new computing frontier.

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          This is why I always say it’s no good to gauge the quality of our society by looking merely at how young people lead their lives: it’s better to give them time to grow up first.

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          One things that really makes the difference between PC software and smartphones:

          My PC software really feels like it was built by the author–for the author, while the stuff I have seen on smartphones feels like niggling, ad-infested shareware that subtly tries to influence you to do things that make money for the author.

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          TLDR: I don’t like smartphones because they are not PCs.

          This comment was brought to you using a smartphone.

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            But I’m sure you also own a PC for all the real work, right? The problem the author points out is that more and more people don’t even own PC’s anymore, given there are less and less primary incentives for that. Even kids nowadays mostly spend their money on expensive smartphones, there’s often no money left for a computer.

            Later on, when a kid might come up with an app idea, which can we a secondary incentive, there then won’t be a PC to work on those things. It may sound funny, but this is a real problem, and it will be devastating.

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                I totally agree with you - people who use an ipad today are unlikely to be have been type who used the PC as a creation device.

                What we are slowly losing is the malleability of a PC in the house. I would bet that a there are many adults in comp-sci that started off with tinkering with the home PC that was probably bought to help the family do taxes or write school reports. It is becoming harder and harder to come across that kind of opportunity today.

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                The implicit assertion here is that PC’s will remain the only viable way to make things. Something like TouchDevelop is still toy-ish but I’ve been able to make little games and apps while sitting at bars. I think what we have so far is primitive compared to the possibilities, there’s still so much to explore.

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                  But I’m sure you also own a PC for all the real work, right?

                  More and more people are shifting entirely to tablets and phones for “real work” – or more specifically – all their work. I have seen this first hand, a friend of mine has been living without a “classic computer” since the iPad Pro release. He does 100% of his work on his iPhone and has iPad Pro and claims he is more productive than ever. Companies are doing this as well – as iPads are easier to maintain.

                  I suspect (for better or worse), the general purpose programmable computer will be a specialized tool used by engineers and will fall out of the consumer space in the next couple decades. Developers will rage about it – and it won’t matter. Just like when people raged about the inability to repair their own cars due to growing computer control and complexity – and it didn’t matter.

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                    General purpose computers have not been an unqualified success for non-technical users; is it any surprise that people drowning in a foetid sea of viruses, malware, Windows, MDI, the OS X Finder, et al would grab hold of the first lifeline that allowed them to simply get on with their technologically mediated lives?

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                      More and more people are shifting entirely to tablets and phones for “real work” – or more specifically – all their work.

                      I don’t really buy it, because the tablet market is stagnating - sales are shrinking. Admittedly, the PC market also hasn’t been great, but in contrast to tablets, many six year old Windows 7 PCs can still run current software fine. So, there is less incentive to buy a new PC every three years.

                      He does 100% of his work on his iPhone and has iPad Pro and claims he is more productive than ever.

                      As long as we don’t have statistics over a large population, this is just an anecdote. Of course, there will be some people who use just tablets.

                      I think general purpose computers aren’t dying yet, because (1) people keer around and use their old PCs; and (2) cheap Windows laptops are approximately in the same price bracket as usable tablets or Chromebooks. I do agree that usage patterns have changed a lot to move from local applications to cloud applications. So, there could be a rapid change from general purpose computers with a keyboard to computers that only have a browser (and a keyboard).

                      I am two-minded about this. For the general population, computing will be safer. Family incidents like malware, lost files, viruses, etc. will be fewer. But it’s indeed also harder for someone who would like to hack on their system to do so.

                      [1] http://www.dailytech.com/Its+Official+the+Tablet+Market+is+Stagnant/article37123.htm

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                  I think an important thing to keep in mind is that there is a fundamental difference in computers and phones, and it goes back to the (completely defining and appropriate) bellheads vs. netheads.

                  By construction, phones are effectively thin-clients. They are meant to provide access endpoints to neatly-bundled services. When the author here talks about excessive centralization, I kinda have to go “well, duh”. The phones really do have to operate with these goofy and proprietary networks, with the baseband processors and radios and whatnot, and from the beginning that kind of dooms their potential as general-purpose devices.

                  Computers, by contrast, have always been available in kit form, have always been intended to have user servicable parts inside. It is only recently with things like the Chromebook and whatnot that we’ve seen a hard push for locked-down black boxes.

                  I don’t think it’s fair to hate the smartphones here–the author would be better off attacking the culture of which smartphones are a symptom.

                  There’s another point, talking about consumption and about how kids growing up never are going to get a chance to learn about the arcana of developing on a desktop. Just because we had to learn how to do so doesn’t make it objectively the best course, and we should all always remember that.

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                    Then again, smartphones are actually hugely useful. They are just differently useful from a more traditional general purpose computer, but not “toys” for that difference, any more than my turntable is a toy when compared to my Mesa/Boogie (bicycle:car; insert real-world metaphor here).

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                      Quite right! I didn’t meant to give off that sentiment in the above writing..there is very much utility in the phones, and that same utility isn’t always found on computers.

                      I’m not going to lug my desktop onto the light rail so I can play tetris during my commute. :)

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                    There’s a few things I agree with here, and a few things I disagree with.

                    First off, I agree with the locked-down structure of most smartphones. That’s a total pain. I own a rooted Android device, and you have no idea how many times I’ve had to mess with Xposed to disable the root warning, just because those devices are “insecure”. All smartphones are insecure. That’s the same as saying any system with an administrator user is insecure because people can actually do things with them.

                    Centralization is also a bad thing. Can’t deny that.

                    However, smartphones aren’t going to replace PCs any time soon. In fact, I think they might have the opposite effect when the time comes. If smartphones begin replacing PCs, people are going to notice that their all-so-glorious “apps” aren’t coming out as fast. They then do research in application development for their devices, and PCs are bought once again.

                    Smartphones are designed for the consumer, and PCs are designed for the producer, sure. However, when the time comes, it’s likely that the consumer will begin producing.

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                      It took me months to port Cyanogenmod to my HTC One M8s, but it was worth it. HTC provided Android with way too many “social” apps. It was horrible and I enjoyed the challenge. Now I have a really clean device: my smartphone is now a device on which I occasionally view a tv series, listen to music, read my email, and browse occasionally. I barely read full articles, just a few paragraphs are enough and the ads scare me away; and comments like on HN usually have me close the thread after the first or second rebuttal. Lobsters is uniquely friendly and constructive in that regard. I enjoy it so much here. But I digress.

                      Sometimes I use my phone to navigate to a location, but the sport is to remember the route I took for next time. I hardly phone with it, funnily enough. I have a few people, just a few, with whom I Signal. Like when I send my parents who don’t live nearby some pictures of their new, fast growing grandchild.

                      I often find that I take my phone, turn on the screen, then have no idea what the hell I even want to do with it, and then just put it back into my pocket. I think that’s a good thing, although sometimes I wish I had something exciting to do with it. Games aren’t it. Reading PDFs neither. But then I decide that it’s probably just the memory of being excited with technology that has me reminisce, and I search for other things that excite me and do not come with a bright screen.

                      Recently I found Aikido and I started to collect vinyl records. Ah, the joys of a small and simple life.