Friday, February 1, 2013

The Direction I'd Like to See Computers Go

What we use computers for is in flux. In many ways the rise of the smartphone and tablet are a step in what I think is the right direction. In the short run they are changing the nature of computers. Gone are the days of being tied to the desk with keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Now you can do virtually everything on the go, either with a laptop, tablet, or smartphone.

But we still are tied to a device driven technology. Each device does something different. We have no freedom to mix hardware and software to our own liking. I've had this argument with a friend for years. He is an avid Linux user and hates Microsoft. I hate Microsoft myself, but I am an avid Windows user because it has the software I want. I know what to get, where to get it, and how to use it. Through a bit of trickery, I've figured out how to use my windows software just about wherever I want. I remote in to my Windows computer. I get none of the advantages of the local hardware. What I would like to see is something more.

There are many pieces to a computer. They do not have to be linked as they are now. There are ways to reform the setup so that we can gain true independence. First there is the interface. Be it large or small, it has to do the same things. We have to be able to see, type, and navigate. And hear, but that component is the easiest of all and is already universal. Then we have the computational power of the computer. This is what processes the numbers, renders the images, processed encoding and decoding of files, and really does the grunt work. For the highest quality results, these things have to be done locally, but for the day to day uses that most people force their computers to do, it can be done remotely. That leaves data storage. Data is what we live for. Our pictures, documents, messages, movies, and all our personal settings. This is what makes the computer ours. Try moving from a Windows PC to a Mac. A lot of data will transfer, but some won't. We're getting better about this, but the entire process is still time consuming.

What we need to do is separate these things. The interface will be varied, from desktop, to tablet, to smartphone, to home entertainment system, to hotel, to plane, to car. The processing power for some things can be with the interface, it could be in the cloud, or it can be portable. We are getting to the point where a smartphone, in a tiny package, has more computing power than a not so old desktop. Data can be in the cloud, portable, or local. What we need to do now is take the idea of a computer and disconnect it from all of these and make it something new. Rather than have a Windows computer for your desktop, an iPhone on the go, and an Android interface in your car, what we need is something that let's the user choose what they find most effective for how they interface with the computer, and make it compatible with all data and hardware interfaces.

The smartphone is a good place to start. It has limited amounts of data storage and a limited physical interface. Most commonly it is connected to the internet as part of the phone service, with wi-fi as a backup (and maybe even to function as a wi-fi hotspot). You can access the cloud, you can use Facebook, Google Docs, access your blog, stream music and movies. You can even remote to your desktop. Now imagine an interface where local storage, cloud storage, even distant desktop storage, are all merged together. Imagine remotely accessing your desktop is not necessary because both your desktop and your smartphone use the same interface, either stored on the phone or in the cloud. Imagine the phone is more like a key. You have a default user profile, with all your internet shortcuts, favorite programs, and important files, right there at your fingertips and there is no difference when you move from device to device.

I see computers becoming more and more disconnected with a great need arising to have a system to unify the disparate pieces. Either through something we carry with us, like a phone, or though an internet log in, we connect and access all our data from any interface point in the world. No longer does the underlying operating system matter, no longer can we forget a document at home or at work. It will all be at our fingertips 24/7 form anyplace we can use our device or log in over the internet. Now that is a computer I'd like to see in the future. We could be there in a decade. In fact we are already heading in that direction.

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