The Desktop in Your Pocket

iPhoneSteve Jobs’ last innovation to reach the market before leaving Apple might have been moving the computer desktop one step closer to the smartphone interface. On the surface it didn’t look like too big a deal when Lion was released with Launcher in July — the iPhone-like interface that lets you use multi-touch gestures to swipe between and launch applications on your Mac.

But even though hardcore computer (as opposed to mobile) users might dismiss Launcher as a needless add-on (I certainly did), there’s something we should keep in mind. When Apple abandoned the floppy disk drive, adopted USB and marketed products from a digital music player to a tablet, everyone — everyone — followed. Clearly where Apple goes, the world tends to follow.

And where will the adoption of smartphone interface practices on the desktop lead? Let’s look at some other factors.

It’s no secret mobile phones are getting faster and more powerful. If you have a smartphone that’s less than two years old it can easily process the average productivity tasks or media consumption you used to need a PC for. The only thing holding us back from adopting phones as computers on a mass scale is the form factor — a failing the iPad and its contemporaries are filling in spectacular numbers.

Companies like Google are tailoring their services to help drive smartphone adoption because it gives their mobile platform (Android) a wider market base. While Google Translate is fun and handy on a desktop, it can literally get you around a foreign country when you use it on a mobile device with a speaker, microphone and camera.

Whether Apple commands the direction of computing for the next five years out of sheer brand power, blind luck or a crystal ball sitting in a vault somewhere in Cupertino, they may be betting big on one simple fact — in 10 years there won’t really be PCs or mobile devices but a fuzzy middle ground between the two.

Some sort of input hardware innovation to let us do all our computing on a pocket-sized or tablet device will unshackle us from desks and deskbound PCs forever, and the ongoing uptake in mobiles is driving mobile OS innovation faster than the desktop OS ever moved.

Maybe Launcher is a way of getting us all used to a more mobile-based interface by gentle increments for the day it happens.