The Future of Computing

We are at a turning point in the history of computers today. On the one hand we have the old guard like Michael Dell that have made a few fortunes selling PC’s and are unable to see beyond PC’s. Then we have companies like Apple that are floundering trying to merge their desktop PC businesses with their mobile device line ups, a move that while inspired well thus far the execution has all the grace and purpose of a village drunk stumbling around trying to find his way home. So what is to come?

I make no special claims as prognosticator nor do I personally have any ties or non-public information on the doings of Apple, Dell, Microsoft or any other company to be named below. So please don’t sue me if things don’t happen exactly as follows, but I’ve got a pretty solid feeling this is what’s coming: The desktop PC will be replaced by the cell phone/iPod. Let that sink in… the cell phone/iPod form factor will kill off the PC as we know it and relegate the tablet back to a niche market. Oh it’s not the whole story but it will be the major narrative of the industry over the next ten years.

Thinking about this a bit deeper what is happening is that solid state storage, think micro SD cards, are reaching a point in terms of capacity and price that for most people they can carry all of their personal data and all of their business data on a component in their cell phone. That was the biggest hurdle in to this future and it is not quite here yet. A 32GB SD card today runs about $30. 32GB is about the point where half of our customers could fit all of their data on the device. Of course the media-centric younger/hippster set have more data but sizes continue to grow.

Then again there is another solution for keeping one’s files accessible on a phone, don’t store them on the phone but in some server somewhere where electricity is cheap or cooling those servers can be done without electricity. This server-centric model has been around since the 1980’s and has had many marketing speak names the newest of which is “Cloud Computing”. While this may be practical in densely urban Japan it is not coming to the United States in a cost effective form any time soon. In fact the Cloud may be holding back this transition more than the traditional view that small screens mean real work can not be done on a cell phone.

My boss has some monster display on his desk but still does I’d estimate 1/4 of his work on his phone today. A huge portion of his job is acting as geek coordinator for which a twenty word email is often enough and when it is not a two minute call is often better. So the real work argument is already debunked but it had a modicum of truth. Alex another geek would be hard pressed to design a website on a phone. What he needs is a larger display to attach to his phone but those are already possible. It would be more convenient if the display connected wirelessly and a keyboard would be useful too but those are coming. The software however has a ways to go.

Windows 8 aims to change the way you work, optionally turning your PC into something more akin to your phone. This is brilliant and stupid in the same move, typical Microsoft, also copied shamelessly from Apple, again typically Microsoft. It is brilliant because this will let me set up really nice touch screen terminals for library catalogs, cash registers and a whole slew of extremely task specific PC’s easily or so it would appear. However, very few users will ever consciously choose to use their computer this way. It is a waste of screen space and more than that it hamstrings users that are accustomed to multiple windows like me who currently has 12 windows open one of which has 12 tabs and another which has 7. While I am focused on writing in just one window, I have my sources handy in other windows that I can access just by glancing to them rather than having to switch my focus entirely as current phone and tablet interfaces force us to do. It was a reasonable tradeoff for 3″ displays, is laughable on 10″ displays but it is ludicrous for 30″ displays. No the future is something more akin to the Dreamcast (remember than piece of history?) which had one view on the primary display, your TV and another for the little display on your controller. Aside: this is also why tablets will be relegated to a niche market, they are great ebook readers, good inventory lookup devices and anything else that is a singularly focused task but they are too small to replace the desktop and too large to fit in one’s pocket.

Fitting in the pocket is the other big bonus of the cell phone. Smaller device means less waste and cheaper to transport. It means that everything you need to work from home or the road fits in your pocket. It also means that your music/photo collection follows you in your pocket wherever you go. It also means that companies will externalize the cost of their desktop computing, providing workstations with a display, keyboard and other custom input devices as needed even software but the employee will bare the cost of the cell phone. There are a number of issues with this including the traditional labor question of why should we bear company costs? and the traditional business interest question how will we control these devices? Of course in the end the answers freedom and costs will triumph but this struggle will be the story of the next ten years.