Goodbye PC

The Personal Computer era is over, and that's a good thing.

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, TNL.net 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.

Kinect

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 TNL.net 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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About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched 6 companies, of which 2 (internet.com and Earthweb) went public and two were sold (Net Quotient and MoveableMedia). My latest, Keepskor provides tools allowing anyone to develop mobile and connected TV games without writing a line of code. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/roblimo Robin Miller

    To me a computer is basically a production device – something I use to store ordered words (stories) as I create them and to change reality in videos I edit. So I need (and have) one portable computer with a decent keyboard and one monster desktop computer with multiple monitors.

    For play I prefer to avoid computers altogether. Tell me to go fly a kite. Okay. I’ll go down to the beach and fly my kite. :)

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      But for the newer generations, the computer is the hub of their entertainment life (or more exactly, computing devices). What I suspect we are witnessing, though, is the end of the hub and the beginning of the new world where it’s completely distributed across all devices and screens.

  • Anonymous

    Jeez! You are going to have those Wintards flaming you to death. In their eyes, Windows will never fall out of favor. When you say goodbye PC for consumers, you are saying goodbye to all the consumer Windows licenses. Those Windows lovers want everyone to run some bloated Windows OS so consumers can supposedly DO EVERYTHING. Most consumers will never tap the full power of Windows, so they don’t really need it except because Microsoft and Steve Ballmer says they do. When the standard desktop disappears for many consumers, the energy savings will be immense. If ARM processors take the place of Intel processors, those energy efficient ARM processors will eliminate the need for huge desktop boxes. Guaranteed that Microsoft will do everything possible to stop consumers from moving away from Windows. That’s their bread and butter and their whole business depends upon constantly pushing Windows licenses to consumers who could easily get by with a much smaller and lighter OS.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      I think that Microsoft is actually finally getting to the realization that Windows is more of an anchor for them than the way to the future. It’s been a slow progression but the signs are there that the company may be about to attempt a turnaround.

      True, Windows and Office are large part of Microsoft’s bottom line but even the investment community has told them that they need to think beyond them in order to grow.

  • http://twitter.com/MaryHodder Mary Hodder

    Hi Tristan,

    My understanding of ubiquitous computing is that it’s about a world where little computers, RFID tags, are painted and put into everything. So.. RFID has four parts: hardddrive, wireless or some way to transmit, transceiver or antenna, and a power source. The power can come from some kind of reader that can contact the RFID and wake it up, or the RFID could have it own little battery. The whole idea is that with them everywhere in our environment, the ‘computing’ would become a kind of ‘fabric’ where our larger computers: phones, laptops and pads, tv connectors, etc would interact with all of it. Because the RFID are these mini systems, that can likely do one thing each (like read the temperature and transmit it, or read the moisture and transmit it, or say that someone with an RFID tag in their clothing or ID is approaching, etc) and the data collected can come into our larger systems and be used by us, the idea is that there are computers everywhere.

    This has already happened when research sprinkle RFID into a meadow habitat to monitor the environment, or in rooms with painted on rfid to detect human presence or famously into Gillette razors. I think it’s a really interesting component of ubicomp.

    I think there is something very interesting going on when “distributed” includes these little things, collecting, talking, sharing data. But that said, I don’t think the PC as I know it will die: laptop for work projects.. but i’m sure my uses will become more distributed as I use other devices.. it already has as I distributed about 10 functions to my phone.. but i don’t think even the ipad is there yet for distribution of many of my tasks but i do expect it to be there in the next couple of years (for the ipad’s single use modality is too limiting).

    mary

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      Actually, what I suspect is that as you distribute more, the need for your data and applications being able to move from one screen to another will increase, which is why I think that the computer as a hub is on its way out.

      For the last 3 decades, the PC has been sitting at the center of the digital experience but nowadays, we’re moving way beyond that. And that, in itself, is probably part of the reason the PC is on its way out.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/6RU4D3FOFDSZ5VHENVLFL24MUY Mindy

    I think it is a mistake to assume the keyboard will disappear. While I agree that we have been channeled by it it for far too long, the keyboard will remain as a major part of our computing experience.

    I am more than overjoyed, however, in the expansion of alternate input methods and the spread of sensors to our computing devices.

    The PC won’t cease to exist but it may disappear into the constellation of devices that are beginning to orbit around us.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      Mindy,

      The question is why would it continue to exist in that constellation? What will the PC bring to the table that other devices do not?