It started with a post to an e-mail list I’m on of fellow disenfranchised geeks who wanted a place where we could crack wise, talk of off-topic things and be most assuredly politically incorrect, feelings be damned. In a typical thread derailment this was said:
PC aren’t dying, they’re in transition. There won’t be a time where you don’t need a PC. Tablets and smart phones have gotten good, but they still can’t replace a powerful general purpose PC.
This is not a difficult statement to make. The ubiquitous PC has been around for longer than many of us today have been alive. However, some of us DO still predate the PC and have seen it grow from the boxy white bricks like the IBM PS/2 to today’s myriad shapes and sizes, full of glowing neon, water or oil cooling systems and more power than older supercomputers.
But then, another member of the group made this simple statement
People used to say that about watches. I haven’t worn a watch in 15 years.
Which is some sort of indication that both PCs and Watches are anachronisms only fit to serve as curiosity pieces or statements made by elitists and hipsters. And yet millions of watches are still sold every year. I wear a watch almost daily even though I have the time displayed on every computer I own plus my iPhone. Heck, even my coffee maker has a clock built in. Then again, I collect analog watches so I have a biased opinion on the death of the watch. But again, millions are sold every year.
I do agree that PCs are in transition. You can’t really say that smart phones and tablets are going to supplant PCs any more than you can say that PCs as we know them are never going to die. PC means Personal Computer and for all intensive purposes (*Yes, I know it’s incorrect) iPhones and the bigger Android based smart phones are quickly becoming the standard “Personal Computer”. After all they are computers, there is no doubt about that, and they are very, very personal. My iPhone has more computing power than my first desktop machine did.
What I think is actually going to happen is that phones and tablets will become more and more powerful, faster, and simply better than what we know today. They will come with faster processors and with the advent of Systems on Chip (SoC) more and more cores are going to be jammed onto smaller and smaller devices. The current ARM phones already sport dual core chips. Quad core is not too far away.
What we think of as the PC today will continue becoming smaller and smaller and eventually those lines will intersect and we’ll have the next big thing that WILL replace both. That, like it or not, is really inevitable. Sure there will be those holdouts that insist on a big clunky desktop. I have a Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer II sitting on the other desk, hooked up to a 13 inch television that I still write short programs on from time to time. But eventually, those two lines, phones and tablets getting bigger, better, PCs getting smaller, smaller WILL intersect and that will be the moment everything changes.
Think how much we take for granted today. Just 6 years ago there was no such thing as a “Smart Phone”. People had cellular phones, people had PDAs. Some lucky few had palm-top computer type devices. Some had PDAs that were phones. But none of them worked terribly well. Then, as they did in 1984 in their Orwellian commercial introducing the Macintosh, Apple changed the world with the launch of the iPhone.
They had already changed the way we entertain ourselves with the iPod, and now the iPhone was a shot heard round the world, kicking off the never ending Smart Phone arms race that has been fought on the streets, in stores, in advertisement and in court. From there the Smart Phone gained overnight traction and the chimes of inevitability rang. Already computers were getting smaller with the Laptop, the Notebook, the Sub-Notebook and then the Net-book. Tablets were just around the corner.
So where does this lead? It is leading to a collision of cosmic proportions. For a good glimpse of this think back to 2009. A man is working his way though the airport security line when he is pulled aside to explain the strange device he’s trying to sneak through security. The man goes on to explain the Motorola Atrix, a phone that’s a computer. Or is it a computer that’s a phone? It’s a cell phone with a fast (at the time) processor and, more importantly, a dock that turns it into a notebook computer.
It’s not super fast. but I think that it’s a pretty good first glimpse at what we’re going to see in the future. Think of how many people (aside from computer geeks like me because like it or not, we are NOT the super-set, we are a reasonably tiny subset) buy “Desktop” machines versus laptops.
Just using my own life as an anecdote: at my desk I have a 1U rack server and a Shuttle PC. The 1U serves as a test machine for when I’m testing server type stuff like virtualization hosting systems, cloud infrastrucutre, etc. The Shuttle is my media server at home that provides music, movies and photos to the rest of the personal computers in my home. It has no keyboard, no monitor and can only be accessed via the network. The rest of my personal computers are all laptops, one netbook and one thin client. Plus appliances like my blu-ray player, my xBox 360 and my Wii. I have ONE traditional tower case, and it’s used as an end table. I sit my beer on it when I’m working. That’s it’s sole function these days.
My parents have not owned a desktop in years. Today, they only own a pair of laptops. In fact, outside of the Power User/Admin/Hacker set, I don’t know anyone who owns a desktop, and I know a LOT who own tablets.
We are headed to a point where “Computer” and “Form Factor” are irrelevant, I think. We’re going to get to a point where you can wear a computer on your wrist, if you choose, that is as powerful as the one you carry in your shoulder bag, that is as powerful as the one you use at your desk at work, and they may all be the same computer with
swap-able physical interfaces.
Think for a moment about Apple’s AirPlay. You can queue up a video on your Mac Laptop, then pick it up on your iPhone or iPad mid-stream, then shoot it over to your AppleTV and finish watching it on your HDTV. This works. Today. This works well. I have seen it in action.
Now imagine that you have a smart phone type device. You’re on the train headed to work or riding on the bus or whatever surfing the internet, reading email, doing the normal “stuff” we do when we’re bored. Facebook. News. You get the idea. You get to work and sit down at your desk. You push a button on the 24″ display panel on your desk and as soon as it has turned on, all that data you were looking at on your phone and more instantly starts appearing on the desk monitor. You use the wireless keyboard to type e-mail, write code or who knows what. You use a mouse or perhaps a touch device to move the pointer around the giant display.
You’re done for the day, so time to head home. You pick up your smart phone thing and turn off that big 24″ monitor, and out the door you go. Back on the bus you’ve picked up where you left off at work and continue doing things on the device as you head home. At home it’s time to catch up a bit with your friends. You sit down at your desk and open up a thing that looks a bit like the laptops we have today. Power that on and again, your smart phone begins sending all it’s data to that machine instead. Now you have a small laptop like device to type on. The built in camera lets you video chat with your mom, 1000 miles away, before dinner by wirelessly sending that data through your phone.
Dinner is over and it’s time to watch some television. You look up the show guide on your phone device and notice that there’s a new episode of “Ow! My Balls” on tonight. You click that and it begins playing, not on your phone, but across the room on your 60″ 3D HDTV. You spend the rest of the night watching mind numbing reality television and then head off to bed, to start the cycle over again tomorrow.
We’re not there yet, but the bits and pieces individually for every piece of that already exist today. From things like the Atrix to IPTV to FIOS and ubiquitous wireless data access (wi-fi or cellular). It’s all there. Every last bit. The trick is bringing it all together. Smashing one atom of Personal Computer together with one atom of Smart Phone and one atom of Tablet. That will kick off an explosion of interconnected technology that many can not even imagine. Just like the way IBM couldn’t imagine why people at home would want a computer of their own and thus turned away a young Bill Gates. And we all know where that led.