Mobile computing, is there a way forward?

This is a side-track branching out of this riveting thread on tech literacy.

After reading through it a couple of times, I was left thinking about smartphones and mobile computing. From @Nanoroar :

For real though, the most commonly-used computers (smartphones) barely let you access the file system, and themselves aren’t suited to writing code or tinkering much so the easy avenues of natural engagement with the tech part of things has gone away. On top of that, you can’t easily change much about the devices or how they work, so there’s much less a feeling of ‘system ownership’ and fewer reasons to care.

Others have echoed the same sentiment, and so do I. I’m very much not a happy smartphone user. Reluctantly, I need one to function as a working person, but also as a friend, a partner and a son. I guess that’s all arguable, but I think that the pull is real.

Anyway, seeing as smartphones are becoming the mainstream mode of computing, I’m wondering where do we go from there? Can you envision a world in which your main computing device is phone-like?

Are you there already? Are there any alternative devices, OSes and apps that cut against the grain and put ownership and openness first?

Is anyone living (or still dreaming…) the convergence dream?


Funnily enough, the device that comes to mind for me is Valve’s Steam Deck. It has a full Linux PC built into it, one of the best trackpads on a mobile device (actually, two of them) and Valve has left the software wide open for hacking. It’s not a perfect experience but I think there are lots of cases (not coding) where I’d rather use it than a laptop or desktop.

I think my next phone though will be a pinephone or one of the other linux phones being worked on. I don’t really use apps anymore so it sounds fantastic for me. Goodbye android.


I don’t know the answer, but I’d love it if my phone worked more like a desktop computer. A minimalist layout by default, that I can change how I want to. Only install the apps I want, and not be stuck with pre-installed ones I never use but can’t delete.

The way smartphones are set up can often feel too much and not enough, at the same time.


Yes, but I’m not sure I could write a novel set in such a dystopia that people would not mistake for modernist realism. I keep hearing about people having supercomputers in their pockets, but that’s not what I see. What I see are people with game consoles in their pockets.

rant about smartphones with RMS-style thermonuclear takes

Smartphones are not real computers. You can never own a smartphone, even if you paid cash up front.

  • If you can’t connect it to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers with cables (Bluetooth is nice as an option, but terrible as a requirement), it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If it doesn’t work unless it’s constantly connected to the internet and periodically checking in with HQ, then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If you are not permitted to install software that hasn’t been pre-approved by an “app store”, it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If you are not permitted to exercise full control (root/admin access) then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If you can’t write programs on your device without special training and complicated tooling, then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If it can be rendered useless by the manufacturer, OS developer, or online service provider on a whim than it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If it doesn’t have a scriptable command line interface, a directory-based filesystem, and a built-in text editor then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If you are not permitted to replace the operating system with one of your choice (like GNU/Linux or a BSD), especially to extend the device’s useful lifetime, then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.
  • If the device spies on you with your consent, reports on you to the manufacturer, and gives you no way to opt out of telemetry that should have been opt-in in the first place, then it’s not a real computer and you don’t own it.

Smartphones are little more than pocket-sized dumb terminals with touchscreen controls, and cloud computing is the new timesharing on mainframes. It sucked in the 1970s and it sucks today. If you want a personal computer that serves you exclusively, you should be able to get one that’s affordable, portable, and powerful.

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I don’t want my phone to be a game console, but I think it would be kind of cool if it were physically more like a handheld game console. Like, with real buttons. And able to be flipped shut so that the screen isn’t always exposed. Little pocket laptop the size of a Nintendo DS Lite? Computer on the inside, phone on the outside? I dunno, I’m sure a talented group of designers and engineers could figure out how to make it both practical and cute.

Maybe something like this?

I agree entirely with @starbreaker 's “rant”, but I also agree with the value of having something portable and with physical buttons like @Manatee mentioned. The tiny netbooks from pre-2010 are an interesting example. They still make mini laptops like this…All we need to do is make them more open and environmentally-friendly.

Generally, I am working towards making the production of computers possible on the local level, so I always get excited about projects like Bunnie Huang’s “Precursor”. Personally, I think exponentially increasing the number of these types of projects by independent researchers and integrating their production with sustainable makerspaces is the way forward.


That’s a great summary of all that’s bad with the current iteration of mainstream mobile devices. I could be wrong, but it seems like none of it is intrinsically linked to the form factor. I think that’s why I’m optimistic.

Zooming in on your first point, just for fun:

I regularly describe myself as a “desktop user”, even though I haven’t had a desktop computer (ie. a box with chunky components) in over 10 years. Technically, I’m a laptop user, but most of my computing is done at a desk, standing or sitting on a comfortable chair, with an external monitor, keyboard and mouse.

I’m still hopeful for a near future where things converge in a way that makes it possible to drive my computing from a pocket-sized device, while not compromising on my values, my privacy, etc.

Same! I’m not really eager to upgrade from my current devices, but products like the PinePhone or the Librem 5 are really moving the needle for me.

This makes so much sense. Getting slightly off-topic, but it reminds me of Precious Plastic, a small-ish scale initiative to develop machines and processes to recycle more plastic locally.

I never really thought of connecting the dots between the development of small form computing and independent makerspaces, thanks for sharing :)

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Yes! I’ve heard of that initiative! That is actually an aspect of the types of things that I have in mind. For example, open source 3D printers could use recycled plastic fillament for building the cases of electronic devices. Where it gets more challenging is in hardware design and manufacture…I would elaborate, but it would probably be better if I made another thread for the topic of “Creation of Computers on the Local Level”…

My day job issues laptops, but I use them as if they were desktops. Since I work from home it would make more sense for them to issue a micro form-factor PC like the Lenovo IdeaCentre.

My main PC is a secondhand Lenovo M92p mid-tower running Slackware, but I’d love to eventually replace it with something the size of a Raspberry Pi. With a case like those made by Argon 40, it should be perfectly possible to make a computer that can be carried around and connected to docking stations that provides power, a display, a keyboard, and a mouse. How much smaller could we make a portable computer if it didn’t have to have built-in I/O beyond HDMI, USB, and Ethernet jacks?

The old “every program can access every resource the user can” security model is probably on the way out, one way or another. Does that mean it’s phone-like? Not necessarily but that’s probably the shape it will take on consumer gear.

What if each of the phones I’m imagining was encased in sturdy recycled plastic? And they came in lots of cool colors?

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I would say I am less than pleased by this development, but Unix-like systems are have been developing stuff like OpenBSD’s pledge() syscall and W^X, which is the idea that a given memory segment can be writeable or executable but not both.

Nevertheless, I don’t like the idea of programs I run giving me the same runaround that HAL-9000 gave Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” I don’t want my computer to protect me from myself. I want it to obey my instructions in every particular. I do not want to be second-guessed by a mere machine, or subjected to the paternalism of programmers in Redmond, Cupertino, or anywhere else.

I know what I’m doing. And if I don’t know what I’m doing, that’s my problem and the consequences of my ignorance are my responsibility.

That’s an interesting angle. I guess it is phone-like, with regard to running user-space applications. Maybe this circles back to the ability to exercise full control (root/admin access). I can always rebuild a single container or an entire immutable Linux distribution, but I can’t really break out of the Android (let alone iOS) user-space without somehow voiding my warranty.

Honestly, I could probably see a mobile phone become my main computing device at some point, especially if they become more powerful (at lower cost). What’s really needed for that, in my case, is a plug-and-play docking solution so I can turn it into a desktop. Honestly, just for basic browsing, writing or working on my website, I don’t need a fully featured (or even fully open) device.

I’d still keep a proper old-fashioned machine, of course. But maybe I’d remotely connect to it, or only boot it up when I specifically need it.

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In the near term I think that’s a little difficult because not every USB-C port has the same capabilities. In the longer term I think displays will connect wirelessly.