I don’t want to predict the future. It turns out I’m pretty bad at predicting the future and chances are so are you. But I do want to delve into a possible future, one that could develop if certain things go a certain way and certain other things do not go a certain way.
Imagine a world where people stop demanding a faster, more awesome computer, simply because they don’t need one any more. Imagine a world where the pendulum swings back to where it came from and remote servers are the big deal and local terminals are essentially (but not totally) dumb.
This would be a surprising (and frightening) world to both the founders of IBM with their big iron and the founders of Microsoft with their big desktop iron. They would both be wrong at least a great deal of the time. Even in those places one might expect big iron there are simply commodity machines connected together. In those places where one might expect big desktop iron there are simply a bunch of web applications. This would be the miracle of the network. This would be the Cloud at work.
Maybe something will come along soon to make this possible future extremely unlikely. I have no doubt that is possible. The web, the big network connecting the small networks, is that sort of disruptive technology. Note though that the web first developed over existing infrastructure: Telephone lines were the first transport technology to support the internet. Now the internet is drawing that infrastructure into itself. It’s not that strange to imagine that the internet will be the infrastructure that draws all the separate infrastructures we know and dislike (telephone, cable television, etc) and unites them. This is happening right now. The internet is the One Ring, if you will.
But my point is not to state the obvious, but to point out that the infrastructure that replaces the internet as we know it will probably (barring any truly disruptive technologies; keep in mind that I don’t claim this is a necessary development but merely a likely one) use the internet as its infrastructure and gradually subsume it. Anyone who has coded a AJAX application is praying desperately for that day to come, and soon.
I can imagine a world where Netbooks (or whatever you like to call them: I choose Mark Shuttleworth’s term because I happen to admire him) are essentially access points to the Cloud. Certainly specialised hardware exists: No one wants to edit video on something just larger than their palm. But small laptop like devices become at least one of the dumb(ish) access points to the internet at large. This, also, is already happening.
It’s entirely possible that Moore’s Law will stop functioning. It’s not a physical law, after all, and it is a meme entirely subject to physical impossibilities that require a great deal of ingenuity and expense to circumvent. It’s also entirely possible that Moore’s Law will become irrelevant as computers become smaller, more ubiquitous, and less visible. It’s hard, for instance, to fit a heat sink in your shoe; it’s easier to simply make a smaller program and use a processor with less processing power.
Perhaps soon processors themselves will become obsolete. Who knows.
I know this post has been long and taken many un-needed detours but let me interject some personal thoughts on personal computers: Good riddance and could you please give me my fish back. I am so sick to death of overpowered computers that need to be constantly upgraded to do (essentially) the same thing. I could run a word processor on my 486 that did almost everything that the word processor on my P4 does (namely, process words). There are really very few applications that deserve the sort of processing power we’ve got idling in our living rooms. Video editing, sure. Audio processing, sure. Graphic-intensive games? Absolutely.
Instant messaging? Web browsing? VoIP? Creating text documents? No way.
I’d rather like a future where I could buy a box as I needed it. Not tailored to a one size fits all Swiss Army Knife approach (I’m looking at you, Windows) where every five years brings a new chance to upgrade to a shiny new (and despicably slow) operating system with shine new (and despicably slow) hardware. I want something I can purchase and use and throw away when I’m done. I want something disposable.
Imagine if the only options you had when buying a car were Porches, MacLaren F-1s, and Jaguars. Would that make sense?
So my challenge (ringing loud and clear to about five people) is this: Make my future fast, inexpensive, and disposable. Make my data live out in the Cloud so I don’t have to tie it to a piece of physical hardware. Please. For the children.