PCs’ death knells ring in New Era of computing

Steve Jobs, whose predictions I’ve cited before in this column, said, upon the astounding success of the iPad, that the PC would become the equivalent of the 1990s workstation, with PCs used only for intensive computing chores or projects requiring PC-only peripherals or input devices, or very large monitors.

Personal computing was about to become, or rather is already becoming, truly personal. Tablets and smartphones are now used for many work related purposes, and companies are allowing employees to “bring their own” internet and light office work devices to the workplace, even allowing them to work on the road or from home. I say truly personal because your phone or tablet is far more customizable than most office PCs, which are like every other PC on your network.

Your portable device, on the other hand, contains all your personal information, is customized according to your own aesthetic preferences, and is your personal entry portal to your social networks.

You’ve also chosen the apps and games and digital entertainment yourself, unhampered by IT department restrictions that absolutely forbid any such form of self-expression, or suggestion that that you might add personal software to their heavily licensed, strictly controlled installed base of networked programs.

Tech dinosaurs

The personal computer, you may not have noticed, is in a steep decline. We are apparently entering what is widely described as the post-PC era. Sales of new Windows computers are down 14 percent over the last two years. Windows 8, Microsoft’s first major system upgrade in 5 years, is an abysmal failure, and the Microsoft corporate entities in charge of the very projects that need to work together to achieve their goal of standardization across devices, are said to be adrift and not communicating with each other.

Windows 8 is a radical departure from Windows 7, with a steep learning curve. Macs, on the other hand, see their OS upgraded incrementally, with subtle refinements of the interface and beneath the hood. You’ll see no startling user interface metaphor change in a Mac system upgrade.

Macintosh sales remain steady, and the losses incurred by Microsoft and computer manufacturers such as Dell and HP, have, de facto, increased the Mac’s market share. Sony, which catered more to the home market than the enterprise, has sold off its VAIO line of laptops and gotten out of the PC business entirely.

Yes you can blame Microsoft for making the exact wrong decision to completely overhaul its popular Windows 7 with a system no one wants or understands, but this is just a symptom, not a cause, of the decline in PCs. We really are well into a new phase of computing, and it is based largely on the devices we now use to connect not just to the Internet but to cloud storage and cloud document sharing services.

Massive legacy hardware

Of course one billion Windows  power PCs in homes and businesses, and nobody is saying goodbye to that huge investment in what has become, in just six years since the advent of the original iPad, yesterday’s corporate technology, but executives are taking a cue from their workers and allowing the use of tablets and smartphones in and out of the office. And they are not rushing out to upgrade their current hardware, nor even to upgrade to the new operating system.

We have reached a stage in computing, both personal and business, that has occurred with astounding rapidity and which was largely unforeseen by pundits, technology gurus, and corporate leaders, except of course by Steve Jobs. His vision of the impact of devices he invented, the tablet and the truly capable smart iPhone, is uncannily accurate.

The sheer pace of technological advance seems to have taken those with the most to lose, namely Microsoft, chip maker Intel, and PC manufacturers, by surprise, while average users of the new iPhones and top tier Android phones have come to expect that every two years, at contract’s end, the new phone they buy will be orders of magnitude more powerful, capable, and crammed with features they never imagined on their old phones. Meanwhile, PC makers and new players from China are rapidly retooling and rushing new tablet computers to market.

Tablets, especially the business standard iPad, are also changing, improving apace in speed, power and screen resolution. The apps they run are maturing to the point that they can supplement or co-exist with the more feature- rich PC office applications.

Wait there’s more

As it happens, however, tablets and smartphones are transitional devices, based on their connectivity to the web. There is a bigger change in the offing, and that is what is called the Web of Things, where most of our electronic and automotive products are connected to the internet. As the number of transistors that can be placed on a chip doubles every 18 months, according to Moore’s law, which has been accurate since it was noted by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, processing speed, RAM and memory capacity have increased exponentially. In ten years this means a hundredfold increase in transistor density per chip, and roughly a tenfold increase in microprocessor speed and power in that same period.

But what holds true for PC hardware applies to tablets and phones as well. Tablets and phones are basically minicomputers. It has also given rise to new internet connected devices that break the PC paradigm, indeed, the entire discrete computing device mold completely, and in so doing ushers in a future of ubiquitous computing. That is why I described tablets and phones as transitional devices, because our current methods of internet use are going to be a relatively brief phase in the transition to more direct, immersive means of jacking in to the net.

The future is now

We are witness to a sea change not only in how we work and communicate with each other, but in the very fabric of our daily lives. We have smart TVs connected to the web, and apps for our phones and tablets which communicate with and control our new smart home thermostats, appliances and cars.

There is an explosion of new wearable tech, such as smart watches and smart bracelets, which monitor our heartbeats, the distance we travel on foot, provide us with GPS maps, take photos and much more. There are smart baby onesies which report to remote monitors via WiFi the baby’s state of wakefulness, its moisture levels and other baby biometrics.

We are entering the post-PC period with eyes wide open; our apps already offer us augmented reality in the form of visual data overlays of businesses on city streets, describing each and pinning the ones you’re interested in to your maps app. There are apps that apply names to astronomical features of the night sky–you simply point your camera at a star and the display fills with the names of stars, constellations and even meteor showers.

One extraordinary app, Layar, available for iPhones and Android, allows you to find services easily when traveling abroad or at home, bringing you over 3,000 layers of digital information on any building or street corner you scan with the phone’s camera.

New apps appear almost daily that superimpose digital data on your camera screen.

Google Glass: Looking good

This leads to the nearly ultimate augmented reality device, Google Glass. Though not yet commercially available, fully working prototypes are being tested by people chosen by Google to pony up $1,500 for what amounts to field testing. It’s a wearable computer with an optical head mounted display (OHMD), a fancy way of saying glasses, for the purpose of bringing to market a ubiquitous computer for the masses.

The display presents data in a smartphone style format, using hands free natural voice commands to navigate the internet or run specialized apps. Apps, all of which, to be accepted by Google, must be free, include news apps, social network apps, face recognition, and translation capabilities.

The standard Google suite of apps also comes with the product, including Gmail, Google Now, Maps and Google+. Google Now is an intelligent personal assistant, much like Siri for iPhones.

What is most astounding about the device is, like the dog that dances on its hind legs, not that it does the job well, but that it does it at all. It is more than a fad, or for that matter the sum of its parts. It is also the first step toward the inevitable march toward ubiquitous, always on, internet powered, augmented reality. In short, it is the wave of the future,

In next week’s column I will examine the devices, now under development, that connect your brain directly to the internet, both as a receiver and transmitter, and which have the potential to fundamentally alter the warp and weave of our daily life, our interaction with others, and complete sensory immersion in the virtual reality of our choice.

No this is not a joke, these technologies exist, they are being developed, and they promise, or threaten, to change our lives in much greater fashion than the tablet computer and the smartphone.

Stay tuned. You don’t want to be left behind.