I think a lot about technology and the implications this technology in our everyday lives. I realize I haven’t written for quite a while about where it’s heading. Not since those gushing posts about the iphone and later the ipad. At the time I was trying to emphasize what it meant by easy to follow examples, but now that time has passed and it’s around us I think I can approach this in a more general way.
I’m talking again about the shift to componentized computing. This is not a new subject from me. It’s the natural evolution of computing I’ve envisioned since the late 90’s so anyone who knows me has probably heard bits and pieces over the years (until you decide it’s best to tune me out or I acknowledge my rambling). What people have to understand is that in general this is a paradigm shift in the way we consider computers. It’s not unlike what happened with Apple and IBM in the late 70’s. People are getting better and better at accepting new technology but I’m not sure we are any better at accepting new ideas. These take time.
Think about the evolution of computers. We start back at a point at devices you would barely consider computers by modern standards; somewhere back in the 40’s with huge vacuum tube monstrosities used to crack military codes. We skip ahead to the large mainframe super computers of the 1960’s that started showing up in large businesses where people accessed a single computer through terminals. Then we launch into the 1980’s where the whole industry is revolutionized by personal computers.
The personal computers were the first truly single person all in one systems. Computers up to this point were largely shared with multiple access points. Each terminal was part of a bigger system. While workplaces set up networks of these personal computers the individual consumer was not so connected. Well not til 94ish and the dawn of the internet. It is only a natural step that we would want more access. So we mobilize our computers into laptops, notebooks, netbooks. As time goes on we create smaller and smaller all in one devices. This is evolution not revolution. We still take everything with us when we move about.
The next step is actually a almost throwback in the sense to the old mainframes (although there are several differences). The old mainframes had a desirability for access more than it was practical for the infrastructure would allow. Not everyone could have complete access to a computer and there were different needs so we used several terminals since it was impractical for everyone to have a giant mainframe. Similar what we have now is that for certain practical purposes there is a limitation to the mobility of our computers. How small of a display is practical? What is the preferable source of input for browsing the web? Writing an essay? It’s very easy to see how mobility and flexibility are continuously at odds. How about instead of taking everything with you take exactly what you need? Instead of viewing a computer as a multi-access system, or a single all purpose device, we go even farther and view everything as a part of a larger computer system. This is what I call componentized computing. We aren’t the Borg but you will be assimilated.
What makes up a computer? In a very generic sense it is a system that consists of input, output, processor, and data storage. I think these are the minimal requirements for a computer. Then again a digital camera has all of these, but you can view it as a specialized computer. So how do you avoid taking everything with you? If you have access to these components where and when you need them. Input and output is already the most common place this happens. You don’t need to lug around a 30 inch LCD monitor if where you require a monitor of that size you can just go there and plug in your device. Similarly you don’t need to drag around a keyboard if where you need one there is one you can connect to with bluetooth. With remote computing this is extended to data storage and processing. This has been further developed the last few years with advent of cloud computing so you don’t even have to own the physical processor and storage you are accessing. You don’t need to store stuff on your device or even have the processing power if you can access it externally. In fact given the hardware for input or output you don’t need to bring anything with you.
Of course there aren’t internet terminals lining every street corner. This would be costly. The answer is something inbetween. A portable device that handles the most minimal needs of it’s user but capable of doing everything the user could need with the proper access.
Smartphones currently are the closest to this. They just lack the proper support and too tied in to their principle purpose. The fact they are phones hurts them. Not the interface which is minimal cost but that the people selling them are too tied into phone plans. If they just offered the iphone with data plans like iPad over their cellular network and not force voice contracts we’d be closer. Tablets are close too, but they are currently much too large for the most part. This isn’t a fault of theirs. See for some reason a few years back people were pretty skeptical of tablets like the iPad coming out. They didn’t see the want. The want was simple. People got sick of lagging around big laptops that were overkill for most of their usage. The smartphones were a bit too small/attached to phone services to be all in one entertainment devices which became desirable as more media became digital. Truthfully tablets aren’t quite there yet as the laptop killer but they are on their way. They needed to be larger to kill laptops but once laptops are dead I think people will realize they didn’t really need larger devices to begin with.
The key to this revolution is interface. This falls into 2 parts: All the components that make a single computer have fit together seamlessly even though they may not all belong to a single device; All communications between computers must seamless and universal as they act as parts of a bigger system. Falling these two guidelines it’s easy to see where we run into problems. Propietary interfaces are not good. Although they are almost necessary for technology to roll forward since standardization moves slower than technology advances. The process of standardizing USB has caused several other technologies to show up over time. But if everyone could use USB we would be a lot farther. Like picture if there was only a single type of cord to connect devices for data transfer or charging. Whether you were plugging into a wall adapter for AC charging, a television, a computer, or a car the interface would be the same. That does a lot more than it appears on the surface, as it allows certain assumptions to be made. Cars/Appliances could have a universal hookup for audio, video, gps, content etc. Bluetooth has atleast been universally accepted as the wireless connector of choice. Similarly think about communication. Picture if everyone used the same instant messenger/voip client. There would be no need for voice plans anymore. All txts and calls would be over data regardless of device and long distance would be a thing of the past.
This is why things like Blackberry Messenger are evil. iMessage is not better, but atleast Apple fans aren’t clinging to antiquated platforms purely for something that wrong even in concept(it’s sad how many cite BBM as there reason to buy Blackberries year after year). Not to say Apple doesn’t have plenty of issues of their own. Apple’s model is good when ever new concepts are launching and they are first to it. However, once the rest of the industry catches up they lose out. It’s a company only as good as it’s vision. Or more accurately as good as other companies lack of vision. Apple’s market high is because they attacked the mobile market the same way they did the personal computer market years ago. Apple did to Blackberry/Palm what they did to IBM 25 years earlier. However, the competition has caught up a lot quicker this time.
I think getting an Apple mobile product is no longer the clearly best choice. Up til the last few months since about the release of the iPhone 2G 4 years ago if you were in the price market to buy a smart phone and got anything else for a reason other than specific work related software compatibility you were wrong. They were years ahead of the competition. Right now that is no longer the case as there are a number of competitive Android devices. The hardware has caught up and the OS is comparable. Apple probably is still the best choice but it’s getting to a point their restrictiveness is no longer accepted on face value cause their products are so much better.
One of the most interesting things this next year is definitely Windows 8. Not because I plan on running it on a mobile device most likely. It is supposed to be able to run on ARM chips atleast which keeps processor power down and Battery life up. It’s because they created a desktop operating system that can be run via touchscreen. Again it’s not because I intend to get a touchscreen for my desktop either. I’d need a different desk that allowed a 45 degree angle screen surface ala Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s because it in theory it would allow full desktop access to a mobile touch device remotely. Why waste the battery life when you can have an even better system do the processing for you? So I’m interested to see how well Windows 8 does as a Mobile Platform versus the fact it is the first steps towards giving desktop platforms the ideal interface to be accessed remotely by smartphones and tablets. This path will finally kill the laptop. Who needs a heavy 5 hour battery life machine when you get 15 hours with your iPad 3 or Transformer Prime Tablet running Windows 8 remotely. Need to do some work bring a keyboard or maybe you already have one where you are going. In a bit of time hopefully you don’t even need these large 10 inch tablets as you will have access to wireless hardware connections at more locations.
The other thing I wonder is how Intel reacts to the death of the Laptop. Laptops have already replaced Desktops as the primary source of computer sales. And if laptops disappear Intel will be competing head on with the mobile phone processors which were designed from the ground up with power usage in mind. It isn’t like how the Core architecture came from their Mobile processor line making the old power hungry Pentium 4 extinct. The way things are going we’re returning to households having a single desktop, and many small personalized devices. Desktops might even further decline if Cloud computing becomes part of your local ISP’s plan. For a nice monthly fee you get your wifi, X GB storage, and access to a Windows 8/Mac OSX cloud computer account. With a keyboard and a monitor or two all it takes is video out from your personal device and some wifi and you have your old desktop experience for everyone but power users and gamers. And even those two groups could be satisfied to some degree if the power/speed is there (They shown some quite nice demos of people playing heavy graphics games like Crysis/Elder Scrolls remotely on an iPad).
I would like to end this post with some predictions but I find it difficult to guess timelines since the biggest slow down no longer seems to be the technology or even the infrastructure but that the general masses don’t understand what they want yet. The next key battle will be standardization of interfaces and communication. This is holding us back so much. Depending on what gives first, the interfaces or new technology the next few years will be quite different. Everyone just needs to get on the same page. This is like taking the step from analog to digital one step further. Instead of just changing the way signals(data) are stored and transferred we are changing the need for actual hardware and media. The actual machines are becoming digital emulated. We don’t need Movie Players, CD/DVD’s, Books and Magazines, Telephones, Televisions, or Cameras, just the suitable input/output interface and processor that can run the program.
This sort of change could take a decade since you have to move everyone forward at the same time and the companies making money have no incentive. Especially the phone/cable companies. They are like the record companies and the movie industry and will be the next to feel the heat. There is no need for landlines/cable beyond a way to get internet into houses, and emergency contact. All phone and television can be done over the internet now. There is no need for expensive phone plans or long distance, just the cost of data. Skype sells Skype Numbers for $60 a year in some countries (not Canada). This allows you to have an incoming and outgoing number that is free Skype to Skype and accessible from any device that supports Skype. How much cheaper is that than a phone voiceplan if everyone had Skype? Even if you are calling non-skype their rates are cheaper than traditional long distance. I don’t think Skype is the answer necessarily but it’s limitation is purely bandwidth which should be the same limitation the phone companies are dealing with. A few years ago there was a Nokia phone that automatically switched to using Wifi when in a wifi area on a call instead of your minutes. Suffice to say very few phone companies supported it. So I ask why are we paying so much?
I will leave this on what you can do to help push everything forward. Encourage people you know to use applications like Skype, Whatsapp, Viber, Tango, instead of txt messages and voiceplan calls. Minimize your voice plans with your phone companies to minimal minutes/txt messages. Move to data centric plans. I’d push this even if it means using some device only apps like BBM, or iMessage, but in general avoid using apps like iMessage/BBM in favor of others where you can. Don’t stay attached to certain technologies and companies blindly cause you favor them. Support companies that work off universal interfaces when practical. End Rant.