The Multiscreen Revolution
We are in the midst of a revolution across a variety of screens, with new input methods, new formats, and new distribution models. This revolution is being fueled by several fundamental drivers: processing power growth, powerful portable batteries, increasing bandwidth for wireless Internet connectivity, and a wide array of screen sizes and device form factors.
This “multiscreen” revolution represents the growing number and diversity of screens in our daily lives – PCs, smartphones, tablets, TVs and more – as well as our increasing ability to interact with content and applications across screens, and the interconnections between them.
Average processing power has been on a continuous growth curve for PCs over the past 25 years, with Moore’s Law holding firm as processing doubles every 18 months. This growth is being further accelerated by the adoption of multicore processors.
In addition to PCs, we now see an increase in processing power on smartphones, Internet-connected televisions, and tablets. This is driving the mobile computing boom and enabling much richer experiences on these screens, with typical processor speeds over 1GHz. Even so, the processing power across these screens is comparable to what the personal computer experience was about seven years ago. While mobile computing power increases, we will continue to have an ongoing processing power gap between PCs on the one hand, and smartphones, TVs, and tablets on the other.
This creates a challenge for anyone building digital experiences, as they will need to deliver effective experiences across many non-PC devices, not only high performance personal computers. Our approach at Adobe is to take a mobile-first view on the new work that we are doing to design for the more constrained environments, then look to ways to enhance that experience for higher performance environments.
Advances in battery technology over the past 10-15 years have enabled the increase in processing power on mobile devices. If we look at this in terms of the amount of energy that can be stored per weight of the battery, the transition from the hefty lead acid batteries in 1945 to lightweight lithium polymer technology today has resulted in dramatic improvement. This is what is enabling us to carry around smartphones or tablets with processing power that delivers such a strong experience today.
This shift follows the classic “s-curve” of innovation, where a technology slowly improves in the early period of its inception, experiences rapid improvement, and then goes into a mature period of slow to no improvement. We are now in the mature phase of current battery technology. It has basically hit a plateau over the past five years.
By their very nature, mobile devices are much more reliant on battery power, and many web experiences are power intensive. Since it’s likely that we’re going to be operating with the battery technology that we have right now for at least the next several years, content creators need to consider ways to optimize battery usage. From a hardware perspective, the addition of multicore processors and graphical processing units on smartphones and tablets promises to deliver some increases in performance along with longer battery life.
Since Flash is such an integral part of the web, we at Adobe have focused a lot of our energy on optimizing its mobile performance with battery limitations in mind. In addition to working with our hardware partners to optimize Flash Player for their devices, we’ve also focused on making Flash smarter in how it manages the CPU resources that it uses. For example, Flash will automatically pause the content that is running when the browser is hidden from view or the current browser tab is placed in the background.
The display itself is usually the primary power drain on devices, followed by using the radio for communication. Some of the simplest things such as turning the brightness down on the screen go a long way toward preserving battery life. Also, there is a difference in power usage on some displays based purely on the number of lit pixels vs black pixels – the more bright pixels on a page, the more power is used.
Typically, with innovation like advances in battery technology, there will be another s-curve that will slowly ramp up and then give us a major leap ahead of the current state of the art. There’s a lot of research and investment happening in the realm of battery technology. I expect we will see a major breakthrough over time in this area, which will enable even more radical performance for mobile computing, perhaps even bridging the gap with desktop computing.
The computing experience of today, of course, is not just a local one, it is a highly interconnected one. All the computing power and battery life doesn’t really matter much unless you can also connect to the Internet. There is radical bandwidth improvement underway that will further drive the multiscreen experience.
The typical connected US household uses either cable or DSL right now, likely running between 10-20 megabits per second. In some countries, of course, it’s faster than this. Wireless data connectivity is starting to increase around the world, and there is a coming breakout where we will see a crossover: wireless bandwidth is going to exceed wireline bandwidth. People actually will have a stronger connection to data on the Internet with a wireless connection, which is being driven by 4G technologies, such as LTE.
Wireless operators already are starting to roll this out, starting at speeds of 10-20 Mbps, and the technology has the ability to ramp up to 50-100 Mbps on a per user basis over the next several years. Of course, this speed will vary depending on which type of building the user is in and other factors, but generally we can expect to see wireless bandwidth over time that’s about five times faster than what we’re experiencing today.
Overall it is going to be a plentiful bandwidth environment, and that’s going to be great for anyone building experiences such as streaming HD video, multiuser games, or rich, live collaboration on the web.
For many years, web designers and application developers looked at the average computer screen size and aimed at that in their work. Over time, this size gradually increased and now we are at a point where this has splintered into many screen sizes. One can no longer design to a single average size.
Smartphones are increasing in resolution and will likely plateau around 960×640, as they remain small enough to hold in your hand. Emerging tablets range in size from 7″ to 10″ and some will be even larger, with resolutions between smartphones and PCs. Internet-connected televisions have an HD resolution of 1920×1080, a very high fidelity screen connected to the Internet. Some desktop computer displays are delivering even greater resolution.
Some content providers have chosen to tackle this diversity through multiple implementations of their websites. But as more and more form factors are added, this approach becomes impractical. Ideally, to take into account all these screen sizes, content can be created once and made adaptable so that it will adjust to a diversity of screens. One emerging approach that is to use CSS to skin your site across displays. Another is to design multiple presentations of content while reusing common elements such as story flow, images, and video that may be dynamically adapted.
In addition to screen size and resolution, content needs to take advantage of the different input methods — whether it’s a touch screen, remote or keyboard. The touch interface in particular requires a rethink in how to best present content and design applications for that direct input model, while still reusing content where appropriate across these different interface models.
Desktop vs Mobile Internet Use
This transformation from desktop to mobile is happening now. Below is a chart from a recent Morgan Stanley report, showing that desktop connections to the Internet are continuing to increase. In the next three or four years mobile computing is going to exceed desktop computing on the Internet.
All of these changes together represent a bigger shift in computing than the personal computer revolution.
There are already hundreds of millions devices in the hands of people connecting to the web. Over time, the majority of people using web content and applications will be connecting through a mobile device. In 2010 alone, over 350 million smartphones were sold and the tablet form factor accelerating quickly from more than 18 million tablets this past year. The first Internet-connected TVs have started to hit the market, and hundreds of millions of these TVs and set-top boxes are expected to ship worldwide in the next five years.
This multiscreen revolution is a great opportunity to create new experiences for people. However not all web content and applications are ready for this shift yet. Much of the web was designed and developed to leverage the power, capabilities, typical screen size, and fixed nature of the personal computer. It’s imperative that we all shift our thinking in content and application creation to mobile-first and embrace the constraints of mobile to create an even better experience for users, both on small screens and larger screens.
At Adobe, this is an exciting time of change in how we look at building our tooling, runtimes, and cloud based services to help people best express themselves in the multiscreen world. To learn more about these trends and get some insight into how we see this is transforming web sites, digital publishing, video, enterprise applications, and gaming, you can watch my presentation at Adobe’s annual designer & developer conference, MAX (the keynote begins 15 minutes into the video stream).
A presentation showing these trends is also available here — feel free to share this information and embrace the multiscreen revolution.