Ten years from now, will you have a PC? If so, what will it look like, and how will it work? We asked research-lab experts where the PC is going–and got surprising answers.
From the October 2000 issue of PC World magazine
by Dylan Tweney, firstname.lastname@example.org
"2010 is going to be a great year," you think as you park your hybrid gas/electric car at the multimedia theater. The boss has promised you a promotion and a generous increase in your retention benefits package, as a reward for your excellent work on the Freeble account in 2009–and come to think of it, the genetically modified landscaping around the theater looks greener than ever.
As you walk toward the box office, you recognize someone standing in line. You can’t recall who she is, so you discreetly click a button on your wristwatch to call up a display embedded in your glasses. A tiny LCD projects a menu into your right eye. Using your watch, you select Identify from the menu. The camera in your glasses snaps a picture of the mystery woman and wirelessly transmits it to the credit card-size computer in your jacket pocket. The machine identifies the person as Eve McSweeney of McSweeney Sprocket Distributors, whom you met at a trade show last month.
"Hello, Eve; it’s good to see you again," you say as you step up to the ticket line.
Sound far-fetched? All of these technologies already exist in embryonic form–as lab prototypes, in-progress standards, or nascent products. By 2010, they might be workaday business tools. But would that spell the end of the personal computer as we know it?
Don’t bet on it. Once you return to your office of the future, you may take that card computer out of your pocket and plug it into the PC Card slot of your desktop workstation–a beige computer running Microsoft Windows 2009. (Okay, it will probably sport a large, superflat LCD screen and have fewer cables coming out of it.) The two computers will synchronize their data files, including an audio recording and a text transcript of your conversation with Eve. You’ll refer to this transcript later when you compose a follow-up message to her.
For more than two decades, the PC has reigned supreme among computing devices. But change is in the wind these days. While the market for PC hardware and peripherals grew by a healthy 12.7 percent in 1999, according to market research firm PC Data, sales of desktop computers and servers are growing more slowly than in previous years. Steve Baker, vice president of technology research for PC Data, says most PC market growth involves portable machines, handheld devices, and new peripherals. Sales of Palm PDAs, for example, rose by 80 percent in 1999, according to PC Data; digital camera sales, meanwhile, grew by 67 percent, and sales of portable PCs of all kinds increased by 26.5 percent.
That’s not all. By 2005, according to the Yankee Group research company, wireless communications services will have 1.26 billion subscribers–up from 469 million at the end of 1999. Feel surrounded by cell phones now? Wait until every fifth human on the planet has one. By 2003, the number of people in the United States who can access the Internet from digital phones and other wireless devices will surpass the number who surf using traditional PCs, predicts International Data Corporation.
Clearly the PC faces more competition. There’s no consensus, though, on what that means for the personal computer as we know it. Most experts believe that–while computers (and how we compute) will evolve over the years–the PC is not going to disappear anytime soon. Others feel that the computer will gradually be replaced by something appliance-like, but nobody offers a clear timetable for this transition.
Perhaps the likeliest scenario is a disparate environment where computing devices of every description–appliances, phones, standard PCs, PDAs, and gadgets unimaginable today–compete for our attention and dollars. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a wired, wired world.
To PC or Not to PC?
As handheld devices and phones seem to gain features by the day, who will need a PC? Not everybody. In Japan, many people use tiny cell phones called keitai to send short e-mail messages to one another. Keitai are smaller and more portable than PCs–and you don’t even need to know how to type to use them effectively.
Rich Gold, manager of research in the experimental documents group at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), believes that the personal computer will eventually be replaced by easy-to-use, special-purpose devices like keitai. "The PC will go away," predicts Gold, "but computing will not." He believes that computing will be embedded in a vast array of different devices. Gold believes that tomorrow’s computers, like today’s telephones and TVs, will become unobtrusive appliances.
Not everyone agrees with Gold, though. PC Data’s Baker believes that PCs will remain indispensable general-purpose computing devices for e-mail, spreadsheets, word processing, photographs, games, and Web access. Of course, says Baker, there will be myriad complementary ways to access the Internet and use technology.
PCs may also become command centers–central access points for controlling other devices in an office or home, Baker predicts. For instance, you might use a PC to find out when the next episode of Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? airs and instruct your TV to record the show.
Evolution at Work
In part, the PC is a victim of its own success. Now that nearly 60 percent of U.S. households own at least one PC, traditional PC makers don’t have an open horizon for marketplace expansion.
Naturally, technology companies are seeking ways to get you to buy more than one personal computer. Next-generation PCs will come in various shapes, sizes, and colors, and they’ll run a broader array of CPUs (from such manufacturers as Motorola, AMD, and Transmeta) and operating systems (like Linux, BeOS, and Palm OS).
It’s not clear which computers will use which operating system–and it probably won’t matter anyway. The OSs on these futuristic devices will probably be about as significant to you as the OS on your cell phone is now. Experts are reluctant to predict which devices will enjoy the greatest success over the next decade, but they do agree on some general observations.
First, rather than handling a multitude of options, such devices will likely have highly simplified, special-purpose interfaces that highlight one or two functions. Such products should be a lot easier to use than today’s PCs, and the goal should be to make using them enjoyable, believes Robert J. T. Morris, director of IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. "Computing has got to become a pleasurable and delightful part of our experience," asserts Morris.
As people increasingly depend on Web applications, a local machine’s OS becomes less relevant. When you can access your files and applications from a browser no matter where you are, will you care what OS the browser uses?
"I think I can safely say that in 10 years the operating system won’t matter," says Dave Winer, founder of Userland Software, a developer of Web-based applications based in Burlingame, California. "As time goes forward, it will become apparent that there is one virtual computer on the planet, and we’re all users of it," says Winer. This, of course, would be a huge change from today’s situation, where Windows is such an important part of our experience. That said, even Microsoft seems to be veering in this new direction with its announcement of .Net–a suite of services designed to allow PCs to access data and apps on Web servers.
The PC Legacy
Still, it may be difficult to escape the ubiquitous desktop computer–especially at the office. In 2010, your successors may be using that spreadsheet you’re building in Excel right now. Sure, they might be looking at it on a 20-inch flat-panel LCD screen, and using spoken commands to navigate it, but behind the newfangled interface, it may be the same old file.
"The need for a general-purpose platform like a personal computer in the workspace will never go away," says Mark T. Smith, manager of the appliance platforms department at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto, California. "We’re always going to be using those, at least for the foreseeable future, because they’re a cost-effective way to do a lot of different things."
Yet already, the office PC is interconnected to many other devices. You might use a PC to update your contacts, but access them on a Palm or a Web-based address book. Expect this trend to continue, with the PC spawning a host of satellite devices for special business purposes. As such devices proliferate, many of them will communicate wirelessly, perhaps using the emerging Bluetooth standard.
The growth of satellite devices will raise a corresponding need for synchronization tools to ensure that the data is consistent on all platforms and that disparate applications can communicate easily and effectively. "You can have connectivity, but until you have a commonness of purpose and until you have a coherence between data, it’s not useful," says IBM’s Morris.
In fact, the most significant technology revolutions of the next five to ten years are likely to owe more to the standardization of these communications protocols than to technical innovation, according to Alan Cooper, the founder and president of Cooper Interaction Design, a customer experience strategy firm in Palo Alto, California. Cooper believes that the computer breakthroughs of coming decades will depend on communications standards that enable new and existing technologies to interconnect and work in concert.
That’s not to say technical innovation won’t occur. In fact, a host of new computing and interface devices are likely to hit the market in the coming decade. Some will be dead-end experiments rejected by an unappreciative public. But others will become the PalmPilots or Napsters of their day. Here’s a sampling of technologies we’ll see in the coming ten years:
Wearable computing: Researchers at MIT have been experimenting with–and donning–so-called wearable-computing devices since 1993. Such devices are worn on the body and can be operated while the user’s hands are busy with other tasks.
One component of many wearable computers is a head-mounted display: A tiny LCD projection system beams information into your eyes. First-generation versions of these displays tended to be large and bulky. More recently, the USER group at IBM’s Almaden Research Center has been working with a very small head-mounted display embedded in transparent plastic, so that it doesn’t obstruct the user’s eye contact with others.
Head-mounted displays for specialized purposes should reach the market within five years, but when (and whether) widespread adoption will occur is anyone’s guess. Would you wear a head-mounted display to your next business lunch? Or on a date? We didn’t think so.
MIT and IBM have done research into other kinds of wearable computing, such as computerized rings, watches, and an array of "digital accessories." As such products gain a place in their users’ wardrobes, fashionable design will become ever more important to computer purchasers.
Context-aware computing: Both IBM and HP Labs have been experimenting with computers that pay attention to you, sensing where you are, what you’re doing, and even what your vital signs are.
HP has developed an experimental platform called the BadgePad that may also include biometric voice recognition capabilities (so you can identify yourself by speaking to it), directional sensors, and temperature and humidity sensors. The BadgePad costs about $100 to produce and would be even cheaper in mass quantities. Products incorporating this kind of technology from an array of manufacturers could hit the market within a year.
Do we really want computers to know so much about us? Maybe not, especially in a business context, says Cameron Miner, a lead engineer in IBM’s design lab. But, he says, "when your computer is built in to your glasses or your watch, when it is actually participating in your social life, it will matter more."
Digital ink and audio: Imagine you’re at a meeting, taking notes on a notepad that captures your handwriting, sketches, and doodles as "digital ink" and attaches those notes to your calendar entry for that meeting. Later, while reviewing your calendar, you may click an icon to call up the notes, and click any part of your notes to replay a digital audio recording of the corresponding part of that particular meeting.
Such a scenario, sketched by IBM’s Morris, is not far-fetched–digital ink and audio technologies already exist. All that remains is for someone to integrate the package with your calendar and other personal data in a usable form. Morris says IBM is already working on such a product, based on technology IBM developed for the CrossPad digital ink platform.
Brave New World?
Does a new generation of special-purpose appliances portend that PCs will get easier to use? Maybe. Many of today’s Windows apps sport a daunting array of menu items, with scores of buttons and toolbars, making it hard for untrained users to do even simple tasks. If the same feature-obsessed engineers who built today’s desktop apps design next-generation appliances, it’s possible that poor controls will cause even more information overload than we currently endure.
The bottom line, according to customer experience visionary Alan Cooper, is that designers of new products need to focus on customers and their needs. "The information revolution isn’t about technology," says Cooper. "It’s about how people talk to each other. It’s about language."
IBM’s Morris agrees that computing must become a more enjoyable activity–or else. "Our computers are not going to swamp us," Morris predicts. "The experience will be good, or we won’t want it, And whoever figures out how to make it pleasurable will win in the marketplace."
So listen up, computer scientists and product designers. Computers in 2010 will almost certainly surround us even more than they do today–they’ll be in our shirt pockets, our watches, and yes, our glasses. But whether our glasses are running Windows 2010 Special Edition 2, Linux, or some yet-to-be-invented operating system, one thing’s for sure: Using them had better be pretty darn easy.
Dylan Tweney is a writer and content consultant based in San Mateo, California.
Link: 2010: A PC Odyssey
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