The Crossroads to the Future of the Personal Computer

The Crossroads to the Future of the Personal Computer

The Personal Computer (PC) is about to go through another radical evolution. We’ve already moved from the typical beige boxes of the late 80’s and the 90’s to a world where most people use a laptop as their primary computer. Of course the desktop has not disappeared; it continues to rule when the absolute bleeding edge in power is required, i.e. for high-end workstations (for example for CGI work or other graphics and multimedia applications) and for gaming (although this continues to be less true, even mid-end laptops perform admirably in all but the most demanding games these days). For the vast majority of users the reality is simply that computers have been fast enough for what they want to do for the last decade, which means that technological progress has continued to make that same computing power cheaper and smaller than ever before.

So now we are quickly approaching the point where people will have all the computing power they need in their pocket in the form of a smartphone. Arguably we are already there for many people and in fact it is becoming increasingly common among young people that they see no need for a computer other than their smartphone. It is my prediction that over the next decade we will see a dramatic shift to the smartphone becoming the primary computing platform for everyone that doesn’t need bleeding-edge performance.

The obvious counterargument is that the phone form-factor is absolutely dreadful for any sort of real productivity work. Trying to do anything much more complicated than writing a simple E-mail can be an exercise in frustration. For this reason I believe we see a new sort of hardware ecosystem evolve around expanding the capabilities of the smartphone while you are working at a desk. Technically it can be done today by using a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and hooking up a large monitor with HDMI. Ideally the monitor would be connected wirelessly as well (perhaps using Miracast or similar technology) but we aren’t quite there yet. The advantage of such a setup should be immediately obvious. You could have dumb terminals (consisting of mouse, keyboard and screen) at home and at work while you carry the “brains” around in your pocket. You have all the advantages of full-size peripherals when you need them but you still have your full computer with you wherever you go. Additionally, I can imagine future tablets morphing into simply being ultra-thin touchscreens with no built-in processing capabilities that simply connect to your smartphone as well. There simply won’t be a compelling reason to have more than one CPU per person except for rare cases.

So now that I’ve laid out my vision of the future of personal computing I can tackle the heart of this blog post: who will make this vision happen? Right now we are seeing a convergence from two sides. On the one side is the mobile space with Android running on ARM processors. On the other side is the PC (desktop or laptop) running Windows on Intel (or AMD) chips. Intel is already aggressively pursuing the ultra-low-power market and have made significant inroads with cheap and small tablets running full versions of Windows 8.1. The next step is smartphones with x86 processors running the desktop version of Windows, something I fully expect to see within the next year or two. In the meantime Android continues to grow up. Google continues to add features to its mobile OS and there are already a number of netbooks available running Android.

While there is always the possibility that Android and Windows will reach some kind of stable equilibrium history seems to suggest that one or the other will eventually come out with the lions-share, with the loser becoming a niche player or disappearing entirely. It will be exciting to see which of these two titans, Google and Microsoft, will end up dominating the personal computing space of the future, or will it be an entirely different third player yet to come? I can’t wait to find out.

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