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The Next Generation of Computers

July 27th, 2009

While recently giving a guest lecture in a class at my college, I was asked what computers and computing would be like in 30 years’ time, and I found it hard to respond; although that’s been about how long personal computers have been around, there have been so many developments, both incremental and evolutionary, that it’s hard to predict what the product of so many upcoming separate developments may add up to in that much time–and that’s without considering that advancements in technology tend to be exponential in growth.

But one thing that should not be too hard to see coming is the next generation, what will take us through the next 10 years or so of computing, perhaps longer.

To start with, we have the interface: the OS. Think back to some of the early interfaces maybe half a century ago, which included punching holes in paper tapes and cards and feeding them into scanners that would translate the code into data on the computer. After that, we got the CLI: the Command Line Interface, the quasi-dialect of English which much more resembled human communication, but was still clunky and difficult to learn and use. After that, we got the GUI: the Graphics User Interface, with the mouse, the window, the desktop, the menu–visual metaphors which were much more intuitive, much more related to our human experiences, and so much better suited for human beings to deal with.

That’s where we are now. So, what’s next? It appears to be multi-touch. Yes, the thing that you have on your iPhone or iPod Touch, where you can swipe or pinch or twist and make the phone do stuff. That’s an embryonic form of what you’ll use to control your computer soon. To get a better taste of how that will work, watch the video below, with multi-touch whiz Jeff Han demo’ing his version of the interface. The real action starts at 2:45, so I have (hopefully) queued up the YouTube video to start at that time when you click ‘play.’ (If you want to start from the beginning, manipulate the slider to bring it back to 0).

But at 2:45, Han shows you how you can manipulate images. Some of it will be familiar, similar to what the iPhone does (note that this presentation is from February 2006, before the iPhone came out), but in a much more developed way, involving both hands, and with images moving independently. At 3:45, notice that Han calls up a virtual keyboard, resizes it, and then dismisses it when he’s through with it. At 5:50, see what he does with a program similar to Google Earth. At 7:25, note his use of a program that allows him to create elements which then act like real, dynamic objects instead of static drawings.

As Han notes during the presentation, one of the great things about this is that the interface simply disappears, it’s so natural that you hardly even realize that there’s an OS anymore. He also notes that the OS conforms to you, rather than you conforming to any kind of hardware–his example being the virtual keyboard, which is resizable.

Itablet01So, when will this magical new OS come to a computer store near you? Well, potentially, we could be seeing it late this year or early next: very likely this is what Apple’s rumored multi-touch tablet device will use. It probably won’t be the total break from the current OS that the Mac OS was in 1985, but it should be the start of that evolution to the next interface. As I said, we’ve already seen elements in Apple devices already. Note, for example, not only the multi-touch features in the iPhone and the new Macbook trackpads, but also note the developments in screen technology, most notably the hard-surface screen that Apple snuck into the latest Macbooks–a must-have if you’re going to use a touch screen device–and the new Oleophobic surfaces on the iPhone 3Gs, also necessary to avoid a mess of smears on a tablet screen. New features in Snow Leopard may even facilitate the migration to the new interface. And patents filed by Apple over the past few years have pointed to pretty much exactly this.

But the tablet computer will be more than just a new interface: it may very well be a new composite device, rolling several previous devices into one handy gadget. Think of your current smartphone. (What, don’t you have one? How 2005 of you.) That’s not just one device, it’s 3 or 4. Remember when you used to have an iPod (or Walkman, if you want to go farther back) to keep your music, a PDA to keep calendars, contacts, and notes, and a cell phone to make phone calls? All three of those are now one device, with some functions from your laptop thrown in for good measure. I now kind of chuckle when I see one of my students in the elevator holding both a digital music player and a cell phone.

The tablet could be a similar rolled-up device. We already are moving from desktop computers to laptops; like the move from the big CRT screens to today’s flatscreen LCD monitors, laptops are more expensive and lower quality than desktop computers, but we are starting to buy more laptops than desktops, and they are quickly becoming the default computer to get. The tablet will be that computer, but it will also be an e-book reader, possibly even replacing the Kindle as the e-book device of choice. It could take over much of the netbook market, and could even take over some if not all of the functionality of your smartphone, should you find a way to handily lug the tablet around with you everywhere. Apple’s new tablet is supposed to come with a 3G connection, and with a Bluetooth headset, it could serve as a communications device, eventually doing more than just regular cell phone calls, but adding Skype/iChat communication as well. Phone carriers might see the future is in data plans rather than talk plans.

You may have heard people talk about how the new tablet from Apple will be a “revolutionary” device, and probably discounted that as hype, since we’ve heard that so often in recent years (we’re not all riding around on Segways now, are we?). And the tablet may not be that revolutionary–but it’s not a bad bet that it will signal the start of the next generation of computers. Just like the Lisa was the precursor to the Mac and the popularization of the GUI, the iPhone could be the precursor to the multi-touch tablet.

And yes, I do own Apple stock. But even if I didn’t, I’m pretty sure I would be saying the exact same thing as I am now.

  1. Tim Kane
    July 27th, 2009 at 11:22 | #1

    Actually, as an Apple stock holder, maybe you don’t want to spill to many beans too early.

    The things I look for in the future is digital convergence, like you suggested, because that’s on going now. Also CPUs are getting smaller and then there’s Moore’s law, where they continue to get faster – so that CPU intensive actions continue to unfold. That’s really what GUI exploited, in my mind.

    Because of digital convergence, everything you do electronically will eventually end up on one device.

    The other thing is portability. That is another current driver. Netbooks almost compete with palm devices. A tablet P.C. would certainly seem to be a large palm device.

    About 9 years ago, when I was buying a Palm device, because all of my friends were and I didn’t want to get left too far behind, I envisioned a device that strapped on your wrist – like a giant Dick Tracey device. You could use it by taping on your wrist, our you could pop it off your wrist and slide it open, like a lot of cell phones do, only bigger, and plop it on your desk and use it like you use a computer now, kind of like that tablet P.C..

    The reason for the wrist device, because we are used to wrist watches, and it would be very very handy, but the other aspect is, is that we want big displays. Of course another way around that would be glasses that you put over your eyes. Imagine riding the subway and everyone is wearing their glasses watching their favorite videos and no body noticing each other. Kind of a half step into the matrix.

    The other past trend is the ‘killer ap’ driver. Some times the killer ap is business, other times its not, like gaming and pornography. What killer ap can you imagine from a vast increase in CPU and memory horsepower (and yes I used horsepower on purpose)?

    I see those holographic communications that were used in Star Wars as a possibility and computers with a voice like Star Trek that interacts with you like a human, and not like a machine and I think Robots are coming after that. The killer ap there is the automated soldier, when sold as surplus, cleans you house, cooks your dinner, manages you house hold. And don’t forget pornography as a driver – maybe we’ll see Stepford wives yet (“you’re the king Jack” is seared into my memory from when I saw it first time back in 1976). Of course Japan is driving the Robot craze, as their society tries to prepare for the Demographic implosion following the retirement of their baby boomers.

    Recently, I had to make a trip to Buffalo New York. Since a friend of mine was driving up from New York city a few days later, I decided to spare the expense of renting a car and just get a hotel room near the Air Port. I wanted to see if there were any grocery stores (so I can buy fruit and vegetables because I find on long trips I get sick of eating rich restaurant food all the time) and restaurants in walking distance. So I went to google maps, then saw what looks like buildings that were strip malls near the hotel, then I clicked down and took the street view, and looked around. I saw that there was a Tim Horton’s nearby, so I would at least have that and some other stores. So I booked the room at that Hotel (it was a Motel 6 that I knew was very cheap and clean). Amazing when you think about it.

    If holography collides with Google earth, you’ll be able to go virtually to any where. Imagine your going back to Greece, the posting a link here, that takes us all to the nice restaurant you found there.

  2. Jim
    August 8th, 2009 at 11:14 | #2

    The idea of the $100 laptop went right over this guy’s head. What an ignorant comment… and the rest of the lemmings in the room clap? I would finish this but he comes across as such a wanker that it’s too painful to watch.

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