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Trendspotting: the future of the computer

By Darrel Ince

I’m typing this blog entry on a desktop computer. It’s two years old, but I’m already looking at it and my laptop wondering how long they will be around in their current form. There are three fast-moving trends that may change computing over the next five years, affect the way that we use computers, and perhaps make desktop and laptop computers the computing equivalent of the now almost defunct record player.

The first trend is that the computer and the mobile phone are converging. If you use one of the new generation of smartphones—an iPhone for example— you are not only able to send and receive phone calls, but also carry out computer-related tasks such as reading email and browsing the web. This convergence has also embraced a new generation of computers known as tablet computers. These are light, thin, contain a relatively small amount of memory and, again, implement many of the facilities that are on my desktop and laptop computers.

The second trend is that the use of the computer is changing. New generations of users are accessing web sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Digg. These social networking sites have become either a substitute or an add-on to normal interaction. Moreover recent figures indicate that there has been a major shift in the use of email facilities from the home computer to the smartphone and tablet computer.

The third trend is that data and software are moving from the computer on the desk or on the lap to the Internet. A commercial example is the company Salesforce.com. This is a successful company whose main business is customer relationship management: the process of keeping in touch with a customer; for example, tracking their orders and ensuring that they are happy with the service they are receiving. Salesforce.com keep much of their data and software on a number of Internet-based servers and their customers use the web to run their business. In the past customer relationship systems had to be bought as software, installed on a local computer, and then maintained by the buyer. This new model of doing business (something known as cloud computing) overturns this idea.

The third trend, cloud computing, is also infiltrating the home use of computing. Google Inc. has implemented a series of office products such as a word processor, a calendar program and a spread-sheet program that can only be accessed over the Internet, with documents stored remotely—not on the computer that accesses the documents.

So, the future looks to be configured around users employing smart-phones and tablets to access the Internet for all their needs, with desktop and laptop computers being confined to specialist areas such as systems development, film editing, games programming and financial number crunching. Technically there are few obstacles in the way of this: the cost of computer circuits drops every year; and the inexorable increase in broadband speeds and advances in silicon technology mean that more and more electronics can be packed into smaller and smaller spaces.

There is, however, a major issue that has been explored by three writers: Nicholas Carr, Tim Wu and Jonathan Zittrain. Carr, in his book The Big Switch, uses a series of elegant analogies to show that computing is heading towards becoming a utility. The book first provides a history of the electrical generation industry where, in the early days, companies had their own generator; however, eventually due to the efforts of Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull, power become centralised with utility companies delivering electricity to consumers over a grid. The book then describes how this is happening with the Internet. It describes the birth of cloud computing, where all software and data is stored on the Internet and where the computer could be downgraded to a simple consumer device with little if any storage and only the ability to access the World Wide Web.

Zittrain, in his book The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, goes further in that he describes a potential future that is based on tethered devices. These are devices such as tablet computers and smart phones where the manufacturer regulates the software development that is used to create new applications and where new applications, written by third-party developers, have to be approved by the manufacturer of the device. One possible future vision that Zittrain’s book puts forward is of an Internet accessed only by tethered devices and where restrictions on access are made for commercial or political reasons.

Tim Wu in his book, The Master Switch, takes a historical stance. He describes how various forms of media have initially floated on a wave of idealism and optimism only to succumb to forms of commercial, closed centralisation. He warns about this happening with the Internet.

So what does the future hold? In terms of the dystopias described by Wu and Zittrain I will pass: what happens to the Internet will depend on commercial and political factors which would be foolish to predict; put me down as an agnostic on these visions. However, in terms of technology I think the future is much clearer: that the desktop and laptop will become rarer and rarer and only used for specialised tasks, and that the home and away ‘computer’ will be a thin tablet such as the iPad or a smartphone.

Darrel Ince is Professor of Computing at the Open University. He is the author of 22 books and over 100 academic papers. He has also written for major British newspapers. His latest book The Computer: A Very Short Introduction is published by Oxford University Press. Click here for the book’s companion website.

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