What Kind Of Computing Is It, Really?

The past few years in computing technology discussions have been dominated by mobile computing, followed closely by cloud computing. Now, the talk is turning to “wearable computing”, distributing computing technology as jewellery, accessories and embedded in clothing. But I think that the real future is bigger than this. It isn’t specifically about what you wear, what you carry or what is sitting on a desk/table/lap in front of you. It is about what computing is available, and what computing you need at the time.

First, A Bit Of History

As I usually do, I like to start with a bit of history. The backstory is useful to understand not just how we got where we are, but why we got where we are. Obviously, some of computing’s history started in large, air-conditioned rooms with big computers which eventually came to be called mainframes. Those were supplemented with minicomputers like the PDP-11, but really, it was still a computer stuck in a room. However, there were portable-ish computers, even in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They went into space. During the early 1970’s, we got to see a new form of personal computing: the digital pocket calculator. These, along with the digital watch, were the first steps toward mobile computing and wearable computing.

Computers continued to shrink as they grew in power. The first rudimentary “personal computers” arrived in kit form. Then we saw machines like the Apple ][ and Commodore PET. The Xerox Star/Alto was the first “personal computer” with a GUI (although at $12,000+ per machine, it wasn’t exactly “personal” in price). The Star also gave us a taste of what really can add power to a computer: a network. But the Star was, ultimately, a commercial failure. In the mean time, we saw portable computers become laptop and notebook computers. Now we have “ultrabooks”, super-thin, super-light machines that have reasonably powerful internals. Sure, they’re not game machines, but for what most people need and use, they are sufficient.

In parallel, we also saw personal organizations go digital. Then the Newton came, and while it was also a commercial failure, like the Star, it gave us a taste of what was possible. The Palm Pilot was the first useful and usable PDA, and it led to an explosion of personal digital assistants. It was only a matter of time before someone merged the PDA with the mobile phone, and in 1996, Nokia did just that with the Communicator. Thus, the smartphone was born, and like the PC, it truly grew important as a corporate tool,  not a consumer appliance. Apple changed that equation in 2007 with the iPhone, and Google followed quickly after with Android. Smartphones went from corporate to personal.

The iPad was a bit of a twist on personal computing, borrowing concepts from netbooks (small, light, long battery life) and smartphones (touch-enabled apps and a focus on touch interfaces). The result was that the iPad and the modern tablet supplanted the netbook, and now appear to be eating into the typical low-end of notebooks. Cheap notebooks are now under assault from two directions: the tablet and the ultrabook.

Now all the buzz is around smartwatches, and wearable technology in general. But I think that the real, big-picture vision is different. It doesn’t mean that we won’t get these wearable devices, and they won’t succeed. What I believe, though, is that their role, along with the role of other devices we use now, is actually part of a bigger topic that no one seems to be talking about.

Computing Everywhere

The original Star Trek series, and the late 1980’s follow-on Star Trek: The Next Generation, gave us a vision of what computing could really be like. While some of what we saw in the shows was basically Hollywood Technology (props to make things look science-fictiony), the ideas were certainly there. What did we see? A combination of personal-use devices interconnected with a larger computing source in the background, specifically the ship’s computer. When anyone was on a developed planet, they had access to a global information system, usually through some piece of technology they wore or carried. But some of the devices, particularly the tricorder and the communicators, could work without the presence of a ship or global network.

It was ubiquitous computing, and that is where it appears we are heading. Don Norman wrote about this in Things That Make Us Smart, so it’s not like I’m the only person to have ever thought of this. I believe that the real trend is “computing everywhere”, or more correctly “information and tools everywhere”. It’s not just about having CPU’s, memory, storage and display. My microwave oven and refrigerator have that, too. But I don’t expect or want either of those to help me create financial projections, look up information or create this blog post. Having software of some kind, and a device to access it, is what this is all about. It’s about “doing things” not just “using things”.

It Isn’t One Vs. Another

A vision of ubiquitous computing is about a balance between mobile, the PC and the cloud, with wearable devices eventually joining the mix. As is typical of humans, many people in technology fall into one of several camps. For personal computing, or person-oriented computing, that tends to mean a 3-way split: mobile computing, the PC and the cloud. The mobile group argues that most, if not all, personal computing tasks should be handled by mobile devices running locally-installed apps. The PC crowd argues that mobile devices and the cloud are accessories to help where the “real work” gets done, a traditional computer on your desk, table or lap. The cloud computing advocates want all devices to be thin-client machines for display and input, with the “real work” being done on farms of servers accessed over high speed networks.

The problem is that all 3 are sort-of right and sort-of wrong. All of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. We are still better, faster and more accurate typing on real keyboards. For some types of graphics works, a mouse or Bamboo tablet works better. But traditional PC’s, even in ultrabook form, cannot compete for portability or for some kinds of utility compared to a smartphone or tablet. And none of them have the storage or computing power available from massive cloud servers.

But portable devices will always be behind in terms of raw power compared with PC’s and cloud servers. No matter how much more powerful mobile processors get, their bigger cousins will also get faster and more powerful right along with them. But mobile computing devices like smartphones, tablets, smart watches, etc have the benefit of being there, and working, without the need of wall plugs and networks. It’s in my pocket, ready to go when I need it.

Cloud computing is always going to be dependent on some kind of network connection, but guess what? The network isn’t always there. A Chromebook is a great idea, provided you live in a world where you never, ever, ever lose network connectivity. That doesn’t happen in my world. I don’t always have a good signal, or any signal at all. I’m not always surrounded by Wifi with a high-speed Internet connection behind it. Even if someone manages to build a scalable and affordable global wireless network, it still depends on radio. Radio waves are interfered with. They are jammed. And equipment fails.

It’s About The Whole, Not The Parts

Arguing that mobile computing is better or worse, or more or less important, than cloud computing (or mobile and PC, or PC and cloud) is like arguing that the engine is more important than the transmission in your car. Both are useful in other contexts, but in a car, they come together (with the other parts) to form something useful. Cloud computing, personal computers, mobile and wearable computing can form a complete and useful ecosystem, and one where they are stronger together than they are apart. A PC without an Internet connection is useful, but add in an Internet connection, and it becomes even more powerful. Cloud services mean I can move from one PC to another, or from a PC to a mobile device, and still have all of my data. A local cached copy of that data means I can keep doing something, even if there is no network connection. A mobile device means I can get things done on the go, and local apps and data mean I can get some things done without needing an active network connection.

This means a combination of locally-installed “heavyweight” applications on PC’s and mobile devices, coupled with cloud-based apps. It’s a matter of balance. Some functions are better performed locally, using the hardware resources available. Some only make sense via the cloud, particularly those that rely on massive amounts of data that isn’t practical to keep or maintain on a mobile device or PC. Others functions could be done in either place, and now it is up to the user to decide what’s best for them. Spend meaningful amounts of time disconnected from the network? You will probably want that as a local app. Using it on a machine that is pretty much always connected? You might prefer it as a zero-install cloud-based app with minimal maintenance.

Balance For Each Person’s Requirements and Desires

It won’t be all one or all the other. Just like the PC didn’t kill off the mainframe (and neither did UNIX, Linux or Windows servers. IBM still sells tens of billions of dollars in mainframes every year), mobile computing won’t end “personal computing” in some forms, and cloud computing won’t entirely supplant either mobile or the PC. The balance each person or organization strikes will be unique. Some will want all-local computing, with virtually nothing mobile or cloud based. Others will want to be all cloud-based. Most will end up somewhere in between, and each person and organization will be different.

What makes sense for me won’t make necessarily sense for my wife, my kids, my Mom or my business partners. Part of it is utility, part of it is comfort. Each person will find a balance. Arguing for one and not the others ignores all of the dimensions that are present. It ignores the reality of each person’s individual situation. Even for each person, the balance can change depending on context and circumstance. For some, they will adjust between different technologies,  not just from year to year or day to day, but from minute to minute.

It’s time we stop talking about mobile computing, PC’s and the cloud as if they are mutually exclusive. Adding wearable technology just expands the ecosystem. It won’t replace anything, it will augment the technology toolbox. This isn’t about a looming 4-way battle between wearable, mobile, personal and cloud computing. It is about building useful and valuable products and services that fit the needs of people, delivered in a way that makes sense. All of them, working together, can form a ubiquitous platform that allows computing to augment our abilities and solve some problems. Assuming only one makes sense is too narrow a vision.