Goodbye PC

Within a decade, most people will not have a PC.

Some people have argued that its death was foretold by the introduction of the iPhone a the iPad but I would say that those were only components in a trend that has been going for a lot longer.

What is ubiquitous computing?

In the late eighties, researchers at the famed Xerox PARC research started thinking about the implication of the computer disappearing. In their views, information from computers would start melding into the surroundings without being thought of as part of a computer. In that sense, they saw the world we now live in 20 years ago.

Think of how you’re reading this. It may be on a computer, a tablet (like the iPad), a e-reader (yes, is now on the Kindle), a mobile device (blackberry, android, or iPhone), or a TV. Each of those items provides a screen that can be connected today to access information from the Internet.

The increased numbers of sensors in our world is only furthering this trend. For example, at their most basic level, you have barcode on supplies in the grocery store. Every time these bar codes get scanned, their presence is translated into bites on a machine somewhere, to be tabulated and presented. You don’t generally think of the cash register at your local supermarket as a computer but it is one.

Your telephone (either wired or wireless) also provides tremendous amounts of data about you and what you’re doing. For example, your phone company probably has as good an understanding of your social graph as facebook does since it tracks who you call, how often, and for how long.

In New York, as in a lot of European cities, subway trains now have sensors allowing anyone to see where trains are, and get some estimate as to when they’re coming. Once again, bits of information presented in a computed form on a screen like this (Hat Tip to Second Avenue Saga):

Union Square arrival sign
Great hack on a subway sign

So information now surrounds us in a number of ways. This means that the computer, as an information device, will lose its prevalence since there are now other ways in which we can access the information.

But how will we interact with it?

Bye Bye Keyboard, Bye Bye Mouse

People in the mobile camp will argue that touch is the way to interact with information. The answer is correct but only partially so. While touch is the most efficient way to interact with a screen you hold (as proven by the iPad, iPhone, and now most smartphones), it is not so good when it comes to screens you are not holding. Steve Jobs, in the introduction of the new Macbook Air, said so himself.

So what is the rest of the world to do in order to interact with those other screens. Some solutions, like the new Android TV, look to interacting with those with new remotes that look like keyboards. They want to bring more of the computer to those other screens. For example, Google TV devices offer a wide range of keyb0ard-like remotes.

This is the wrong answer because the majority of consumers are not interested in that form factor (I am talking from experience here as I have a computer connected to my television with a Logitech DiNovo Mini keyboard and it has failed every single person who has come in. I’m the only one who can really get a show started on there.)

However, the right answer comes from a player everyone has all but dismissed: Microsoft.

A resurgent player

It’s been a rough decade for Microsoft. Badly singed by an Antitrust lawsuit, the company has become hesitant and tentative in its approach to the new post-PC world. It has also been saddled with a tough anchor: Windows. The problem Microsoft has is that it continues to hang on to the belief that everything needs to tie up to that platform.

And in doing so, it fails at most of its new efforts.

But there is one division at Microsoft that has somehow managed to avoid that curse: the gaming division. The Xbox has been a success because it hasn’t been saddled with the Windows background. The group threw out that mantle early on and developed a series of machines that were performing well in the environment they were designed for: the living room.

And now, they’ve introduced Kinect, a device that I would call as revolutionary as the iPhone was in the mobile market.

The Kinect, by Microsoft, is full of amazing sensors

The revolution comes from the fact that the device introduces a new way to interact with a computer: without any physical devices. Their tagline (“You are the controller”) represents a brand new approach in defining interfaces for devices: whether it is voice or motion, the user is now brought closer inside the computer.

Extent the kinect to the next generation of screen and you now have non-portable computing devices you will interact without having to touch them. Wave your hand in the air and you can manipulate objects in those devices.

The end of the drive

This week, Verizon showed off their  technical prowess by showcasing how they could move files at a 10Gbps. To give you a sense of how fast that is, most computers today only operate at 100Mbps so what Verizon accomplished is roughly 100 times faster than the fastest network most people have experienced. The most advanced computers available on the market tend to top out at 1Gbps: they usually can move files at those speeds on local network but it’s rare to find networks that are connected to the internet at these types of speed. So what Verizon demonstrated is the future, a future where a 2 gigabyte file can be transfered in less than 5 seconds.

A few weeks ago, I told readers that we were witnessing the beginning of the end for local storage. However, since then, I’ve come back a bit on that idea: local storage will continue to exist but mostly for caching purpose. In a world where you can move several gigs in a few seconds, it is more efficient to move data to the cloud, where it can be accessed from any device.

The rise of Work Computers

Based on all these trends, there is a more limited need for PCs. While the Personal computer was a great transitional device to the ubiquitous computing world, it is a device which suffers from some limitations.

For starters, there are the input methods. There is a clear reason why Apple didn’t make their devices any smaller than 11 inches and touted the fact that the Airbook had a full size keyboard: our hands don’t get any smaller.  So the keyboard and mouse, as entry device are gated by this fact and will be stuck in that mode for as long as we live.

But most people will not need a keyboard or mouse in the future. Except where text is concerned, the existing computer is getting close to having run its course: writers will keep using them (until the point where voice dictation software is good enough to replace the need for a keyboard) and programmers will continue to use a keyboard as an input device to program. Most every other people will interact with the devices either via direct touch (like the iPad) or via motion (like the Kinect).

Those uses will be primarily for “work” or pro-sumer type of purpose and other people will not have computers at home.

One gating factor: Power

The main challenge for most devices will, however, continue to be how to power them. To date, there has been some improvements in the battery space but those are not moving as fast as the rest of the technology world.

And we’re becoming more demanding of our devices.

For example, most smartphone users complain that their device lasts only a day or so on a full charge. But think of a decade ago. Back then, a device with a 1 Ghz process, 10-20 Gb of disk space, and about 128 Mb of RAM might have worked on a battery charge for about 2 hours. Those were powerful laptop back then but we didn’t seem to expect them to run all day.

Today, there is a lot of work going on around trying to get more out of the batteries we have and companies like Apple have worked on reducing the amount of power a device may ask from a battery: for example, the Macbook Air is a marvel in trying to figure out what to remove in order to ensure the devices squeezes more out of the battery.

Will the work computer disappear?

The last bastion of the computer will be the office. At this time, it is difficult to imagine people gesturing in front of their computers as a way to interact with them. More likely, tilted touch displays will become the new norm in offices (and by tilted, I mean that the screen would be on the desk at an angle of no more than 20-25 degrees). Those types of changes will take some time to make their ways into cubicles and may force business to even rethink the concept of the cubicle. The ones that have already will get a head start on their competitor.

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