The days of the personal computer are numbered, a leading IBM designer has claimed. Dr Mark Dean, who worked on the original IBM PC, the 5150, wrote in a blog post commemorating its 30th anniversary, that “they’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs”
OK, right, whatever. In a peculiar way I am reminded of the words of a DEC executive (might even have been the CEO) in the late ’70s who opined that he could see no reason anyone would ever want a computer in their own home. You see the point is that whilst the DEC guy is generally made a laughing-stock of over that comment he certainly had a point in terms of what computers were like then. Especially considering the DEC’s product line-up at the time.
Anyway, I think Dr Dean chooses some bad examples. Everything he cites is obsolete (apart from incandescent bulbs) but that is just because they were such storming successes that in a sort of Darwinian sense their kids now rule the roost. To take the example of vinyl records. The key point here is being able to buy a recording of sound and listen to it at your leisure. The rest: cassettes, CDs, iPods are frankly details. The typewriter might also be dead as Dillinger but it and QWERTY live on. Indeed I have to concentrate very hard to write a birthday card. I can type ’till the cows come home but writing feels unnatural to me now.
Dr Dean argued that PCs had created the environment for a new generation of devices, ranging across different form factors and uses.
This led, he claimed, to an environment in which technology allowed new ideas to flourish, without individual items being a barrier to creativity.
Oh dear Dr Dean! It remains the case that the PC in the sense of a box, a screen a keyboard and a mouse and whatever else you plug into it is the form-factor which allows the most creativity. Laptops come close, tablets considerably behind and smartphones bring up the rear. I know there is an app for every goddamn thing these days but really it is not the same. OK your iPhone can convert Thai Baht to Pounds Sterling so you know exactly how much the ladyboy wants in order to “love you long time” but that hardly strikes me as a 2001 obelisk moment.
He wrote that “PCs are being replaced at the center of computing not by another type of device—though there’s plenty of excitement about smart phones and tablets—but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress. These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people’s lives.”
That is utterly meaningless. Yes tablets and smartphones are kinda fun. But that is it really. All such devices are just computers wearing fewer clothes. Tablets in particular seem neither something nor nothing. They are not “pocketable” unless you’re a poacher and then if you are after the baron’s pheasants do you really need access to Facebook at the same time? “b4gged a f1ne br4ce LOLz’s”. Smartphones are perhaps more useful for the simple reason that their small size does make a difference. But they are not a replacement for a proper computer. Indeed when the history of the cell phone gets to be definitively written it will probably have to conclude that it’s greatest influence was not in creating yet another boring teen sub-culture (involving poor spelling) in the developed world but in enabling much of the developing world to have phones for the first time. And for those folks it ain’t the apps that are the thing. It’s stuff like getting a doctor round when junior is sick or knowing exactly which local market is short of the very type of fish you just caught. Text and voice basically. Oh, and easier, much easier wire-transfers of money. The largest and (for obvious reasons) best-targeted aid program on the planet is folks wiring money to their rellies back home.
“While PCs will continue to be much-used devices, they’re no longer at the leading edge of computing,” he said.
This is an entirely consumerist approach. Obviously, to mooch the web or send the odd email or recline on the sofa with a cheeky Merlot and review your pictures no you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a “proper PC” but if you actually want to do something useful (that includes proper gaming) then you do need a proper keyboard and a 15″+ screen. To put it bluntly nobody programs those apps on an iPhone. Nobody sits down to write a great (or even dreadful) novel on a tablet. I am reminded of a previous (about a month back) Telegraph article about “tech that won’t last”. This included “physical storage” of data. The answer was The Cloud of course. Thing is whilst at the consumer level The Cloud is invisible at the The Cloud level it’s a hell of a lot of blades stacked in a room with ferocious air-con and some pale Gollumesque figure tending it for a bucket of fish-heads a week if he is lucky.
And if hard disk storage is cheap for the cloud it is cheap for me and you.
So I ask myself. Do I want a tablet? Yes, it would be sort of handy for some things but is it worth buying Steve Jobs a new black polo-neck sweater for? Not really. My camera has a 3″ screen which is OK(ish) for reviewing but my 32″ TV has a number of HDMI ports so if I want to relax on the sofa with a cheeky Merlot and my pictures then I can. Indeed for about six quid I can buy a remote control for the camera so I got me a personal slide show. What about mooching the net? Laptop does that. And it does it better than a tablet because it has a keyboard. Note the default “keyboard” on the iPad doesn’t have numbers which is OK if you don’t have to type numbers. But I do. I frequently wind-up typing product codes and these involve numbers.
IBM launched the 5150 on 12 August 1981, and it quickly established the look and feel of PCs in general. Dr Dean owns a third of the patents for it, and claimed he did not expect to outlive the idea. Now, however, he says that even his own main device is a tablet computer.
In a blog also marking the PC’s 30th anniversary, Frank Shaw of Microsoft claimed that the spread of new devices associated with computing was the start of the “PC-plus era”, rather than a sign of decline of traditional computing.
Now, I’ll buy what Frank Shaw says. It’s economics really. In the developed world the market for home computers is well penetrated. Basically everyone who wants one has one (or more). The only way to expand the business is niche marketing. Despite what I said about tablets they are handy for certain things. As indeed are smartphones, Kindles and all manner of assorted electronica. Now if this changes anything (and it will up to a point) it does point to The Cloud in a sense because it means there is an obvious demand for being able to have all your stuff where you can get at it by whatever means suit the circumstances. This does not mean the death of the PC. Only a perverse soul would write a play or hack-out CSS on a tablet when they have a “proper” computer (and they will have one for work type tasks). Having said all of that one really needs to look at the market for hard disks. What will half a terrabyte cost you these days? Very little. Short of BT et al planting a heck of a lot of glass in the near future the drive in the same room is always going to be faster. I could be wrong. Round about the same time MP3 came out so did DVD Audio and that died a death. DVD-A was CD plus ultra. It was extremely good quality but (a) you needed to drop several grand at Richer Sounds to appreciate the difference from CD and (b) it was less portable and convenient than MP3. MP3 won. So I could be wrong and that really depends upon speed of networks versus size of files.
I guess I’m saying The Cloud (in some form) has a bright future but the “thin-client” (and that is what tablets are) model doesn’t. Oracle tried this in the mid ’90s. The model was a laptop as a dumb terminal. It got nowhere. The simple truth is that it is more convenient to actually own the kit and have it in the same room. A possible analogy is with books. The argument that The Cloud (or similar) makes PCs obsolete is like saying lending libraries made book ownership obsolete. I live three minutes walk from a library and yet have hundreds of books in my house. And it is worse even than that. That library is provided the council. It doesn’t cost me “anything” to use. My point is sticking it all up in The Cloud has to meet some basic tests of economics and usability. These seem to me to be unlikely to be met any time soon. It is in the near to mid-term always going to be easier (for many purposes) to have your stuff a few centimetres from your CPU than on a blade in a data haven in Ulan Bator.
Or put it another way. I use webmail. That’s My Own Cloud. Yes, I can get it anywhere. My pictures, my programs, my videos - all the heffalumping big files are on stuff that live in my house though. The Cloud only works for little things like emails. And that because the pace of progress inevitably out-strips the pace of communication. If you know what I mean.
I guess what I am saying is that for The Cloud to take off means data storage must become even cheaper but that means of course data storage without the middleman will also be similarly cheaper. Until the economic/usability test is passed bulk data will always be best kept at home.
And moreover the “proper PC” is the full deal. Everything else sacrifices x,y or z for it’s USP. Of course there is a gap in the market for ‘net devices that do less more conveniently but they neither replace the PC or lower it to the second echelon of use.
Long live the PC. (And screw Apple).