Jeff Bier’s Impulse Response—Will Smartphones and Tablets Subsume All Consumer Electronics?

Submitted by Jeff Bier on Sun, 12/16/2012 - 22:01

In my October column, I explored the phenomenon of mobile application processors (the brains of smartphones and tablets) competing against more traditional types of embedded processors for use in embedded systems. But after writing that column, something happened that made me realize that mobile application processors don't necessarily have to be designed into embedded systems in order to compete against other kinds of embedded processors.  Smartphones and tablets themselves are already competing against some kinds of embedded systems.

I've long been a big fan of networked audio players. A dozen years ago, my colleagues and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the creation of some of the earliest MP3 players and networked audio players. Ever since, I've had one or two networked audio players in my home – for example, in the kitchen, where I want access to my music collection, but also want a minimum of electronics (I'm a messy cook).

Recently my trusty old Roku SoundBridge died, so it was time to get a new audio player. I was attracted to the current generation of network audio players, which support services like Pandora and UPnP. After perusing reviews, I purchased a Grace Digital Mondo. I loved the industrial design of the Mondo, but the hardware and software were disappointing.

I realized that I had been spoiled by my smartphone, which is ultra-reliable and very responsive. The networked audio player was neither. Then a colleague pointed out that for $50 more than I'd paid for the audio player, I could buy an Android tablet. So, back went the audio player, and in came a Samsung Galaxy 2 7-inch tablet. (To be fair, I dropped an additional $75 on a case and an SD card for the tablet, and a Bluetooth audio receiver to enable wireless streaming to my amplifier.)

Within minutes of unpacking the tablet, I'd installed my favorite audio apps and hooked it up to my amplifier. Within a few more minutes, it was stunningly clear that, although the tablet was not purpose-built to be a networked audio player, it is (at least for my purposes) superior in that role to the purpose-built product I'd previously auditioned. The tablet has a much bigger, higher resolution screen, a more responsive user interface, and a more robust WiFi connection. Plus, of course, I can browse the web, read and write email, watch videos and play Angry Birds.

The magnitude of the tablet and smartphone markets ensures that many billions of dollars a year are invested in improving these products and their key enabling components. It's going to be tough for other industries to keep up. How long will it be until we see people routinely using tablets or smartphones as alarm clocks on their nightstands and as GPS navigators in their cars? Oh, wait – people are already doing that, aren't they?

Well, how long until we see people using smartphones as point-of-sale terminals and as remote controls for their televisions? Oh, right – they're already doing that, too. Hmm. Is this a trend? A very capable tablet can now be had for $200. Before long, that'll be $100. How long until we see smartphones and tablets being used as thermostats? And where will it end? Smart night lights, perhaps? Greeting cards?

Getting back to the question presented in the title of this column: Will smartphones and tablets subsume all consumer electronics? Obviously, the answer is no: not all consumer electronics. I'm still going to want a television, and a home theater receiver, for example. But it does seem clear that smartphones and tablets are indeed in the process of subsuming some categories of consumer electronics.

And this phenomenon isn't limited to consumer electronics. I already mentioned point-of-sale terminals, for example. (My local sandwich shop uses tablets for order entry and credit-card swiping.) And there are numerous other examples of smartphones and tablets being adopted for retail, industrial, medical and military applications. In those cases, too, smartphones and tablets are displacing purpose-built equipment.

Does this mean that consumer electronics designers should throw in the towel and find new careers? Not necessarily. The opportunities are still out there; they are just taking different forms. For example, Junko Yoshida of EE Times recently wrote about Parrot, a consumer electronics company that is building a successful business based on products that complement smartphones and tablets. And, of course, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets into new markets and new uses means new opportunities for smartphone and tablet app developers.

Jeff Bier is president of BDTI and founder of the Embedded Vision Alliance. Post a comment here or send him your feedback at

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