Prepare to disown your PC: a prediction on the future of personal computing

The introduction of the iPhone changed the destiny of your desktop PC. You probably just didn’t know it at the time.

Clearly, the iPhone was more than just another digital cell phone. It was primarily a computer that happened to include voice calling capabilities. It was a mini-PC in your pocket, like one of my close friends predicted over 15 years ago. But that’s not all. The “computer’s” operating system was different. The app store model for acquiring and installing “software” was drastically different as well. But in hindsight, though those were what got a lot of press at the time, there’s something else that the iPhone did to set the stage for the iPad and the next generation of personal computers: the fact that the computer required persistent connectivity for many capabilities. It was essentially the first time that a personal computing device was permanently linked to the network for portions of its functions. And if the iPhone was a mini-PC, then the iPad took the “mini” out of the equation entirely.

Where might this be leading? To computing as a service, where the network resources are where nearly all of the computing is done, not the device you hold in your hand. Faster bandwidth connections have allowed software to be operated over the internet from PCs for several years now, an increasing phenomenon known as software as a service. Like having a subscription to the software — a lease — it allows you to use software that isn’t necessarily resident on the computer itself. But, with traditional PCs, the majority of the software still resides on the machine’s own hard drive along with settings, data, and the processing of that data (performed by the processor within the same machine.) But with increasing widespread network connectivity at increasingly blazing speeds, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a future where the “computer” you hold and interact with is just an input & output terminal — a seamless portal to the “real computer experience” as we know it today.

There are probably both ups and downs of computing as a service. You no longer own the entire “computer”. You’re merely purchasing an input/output device — a portal to the service, like a traditional telephone handset. For desktop computing traditionalists, computing as a service is going to take their head for a trip. Yet, for those just entering into computing, like seniors who merely want to browse content and send the occasional greeting, computing as service may be a godsend. No software to keep up to date. No worries about data storage. How much data backup, antivirus, and protection software is offered today to protect your device and information? Kiss those goodbye. If your interface device contains no data or software, there’s little value in it. Drop and break it? Just get a new one, configure your service information, and you’re back where you left off.

In short, your “computing device” may be just as interchangeable as a plain old analog telephone has become today. Think about the hype around what Alexander Graham Bell invented. It was the technology for sound transmission — the device — that was revolutionary. But today, do you value your land-line handset or think about how much it cost you? No, you pay for and care about the service that can transport your conversations, because that’s where the primary value is. The handset is just an input-output device that could be easily exchanged with any similar device that supports plain old telephone service (POTS). So, too, the future of computing is just a service with an input-output device.  No one will brag about how cool their tablet or screen is, just as no one brags about their telephone handset today. The value and functionality will all be in in the service.

What will the marketplace be like when everyone subscribes to their “computer” to get functionality and data storage? Feature wars will abound for who can be the premium provider. (We already see this in the mobile space.) Like cable television or traditional phone service packages, computing service providers will try to outdo their competition by providing more processing speed, features, security, and storage. And while most users will subscribe to commercial providers, private corporations will likely have their own isolated computing services.

How far fetched is computing as a service? Thanks to increased internet bandwidth to our doorsteps (on land-lines) as well as over the air, software as a service is already a reality for many businesses and data stored off-device is also possible though Cloud Computing technologies. So with enough network speed, why not the entire computing experience? Can you imagine yourself leveraging an input-output only device that seamlessly brings you the “computing” experience? And furthermore, if all such devices are interchangeable and portable, would it matter which input-output terminus you “computed” from? Though he proposes we’ll have two devices to carry in the short term, Kevin Kelly predicts the long term direction of computing is just to borrow existing screens. As Corning’s futuristic video (A Day Made of Glass) depicts, larger interface and display surfaces may be available everywhere in the future — pocketable, rollable, embedded in tabletops, counter tops, walls, etc. If you can access your computing service from any of them, and your experience can transfer from one to another in real-time (as Corning’s video depicts), personal computing as we know it today will be history.

Will you be ready?

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4 Responses to Prepare to disown your PC: a prediction on the future of personal computing

  1. Ben K says:

    Upon reading the first description, the newly announced Amazon Silk seems very much in line with this post. After all, it’s a tablet solution leveraging cloud-based software for at least some of it’s functions. Maybe we’re going to see computing as a service sooner than I thought.

  2. Ben K says:

    Another step in this direction: Intel announces “Display as a Service” functionality: http://news.cnet.com/8301-1001_3-57572642-92/intel-touts-multiscreen-flexibility-with-display-as-a-service/

  3. Ben K says:

    With New Service, Any Device Could Run Almost Any Program From Anywhere This article about Otoy seems to describe my prediction pretty well.

  4. Ben K says:

    And others are now starting to describe Computing as a Service: http://www.popsci.com/gadgets/article/2013-09/final-upgrade

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