Desktops and laptops too, having already begun their slide into outmoded antiquity, will soon be nothing more than dusty cupboard-dwelling relics and museum exhibits.
The one form factor that will remain – the last and only bastion of consumer computing – will be the smartphone.
Over the last five years, smartphones have proven that they’re immensely capable. Through the continuing miniaturisation of tech and Moore’s law, smartphones are now approaching the levels of power seen on a desktop or laptop PC. In a few years, everything you do on your laptop today will be achievable on a smartphone. So why continue to use a laptop?
The only real argument for a larger device, such as a laptop or tablet, is the interface. As it stands, the keyboard is still the best way of inputting data, and some activities simply can’t be performed on a 4in smartphone screen. This will change, though.
In just the last few months, thanks in part to efforts made by Apple and Google (and others), voice recognition has finally reached the stage where it can replace keyboard input. Muscle-computer interfaces, infrared keyboards, brain-computer interfaces – in the next few years, any of these could reach a level of maturity that deprecates conventional keyboards.
The display side of things is no different: Head-up displays (HUDs) like Google Glass, wireless contact lens displays, flexible OLED displays (pictured at the top of this article) and e-ink displays, not to mention bionic eyes all threaten to replace the 70-year-old tradition of a solid, immovable screen being the centrepiece of our interaction with multimedia.
In the next few years, the reasons for keeping a laptop, desktop, or tablet will grow very slim indeed.
Life in the smart lane
For a moment, just think about what it would be like if your smartphone was your only computer. You would always have your computer with you. All of your documents, photos, games, apps, and utilities would always be in your pocket, accessible at any time. If you want to check the time or your messages, just glance down. If you want to watch a TV show on the train, or edit a photo, just flip down your high-resolution HUD.
If everyone carries a smartphone, then the power of ubiquity kicks in. If third parties can assume that everyone carries a smartphone, imagine the potential applications – it’s effectively the same thing as wearable computing, a dream that has haunted us for decades. You could use your smartphone as a passport, or as a credit card. Your smartphone could track your movements, and then pass the data off to commercial apps, or helpful services like Google Now. With additional sensors, your smartphone could constantly monitor your activity and overall health.
As a corollary, of course, an atomic computing platform would also give hardware and software makers a laser focus on just one primary form factor. Spurred by increasing power costs, ecology, a worldwide love affair with mobile computing, and very limited battery capacities, we are already seeing a global shift from faster to smaller and more efficient. If smartphones became the singular consumer-oriented computer, this effect would be dramatically magnified. Chip makers would be able to specifically target smartphones. Manufacturers could specialise their production lines and equipment. Software vendors, instead of messily porting programs and games between form factors, could focus on a single form factor and hardware spec.
With an atomic computing platform, smartphones would be cheaper, faster, last longer, and be much more capable than they are today.
The PC will never die
Over the last couple of years I have heralded the death of the PC on numerous occasions. Almost like clockwork, commenters are quick to point out that there are just too many applications where PCs will never be unseated – especially by a smartphone. Commenters also point out that technology doesn’t die; it dies out, but it very rarely goes extinct.
This isn’t to say that larger general-purpose computers won’t live on, though. At least for the foreseeable future, there will be limits to just how much processing power you can squeeze into a smartphone – and there will always be people who need or want faster computers to speed up their workflow.
Instead of desktop PCs, though, I think this gap will be filled by cloud computing. Within 10 years, most of the world will be blanketed with high-speed mobile networks such as LTE. At some point in the future, as mobile data throughput and latency improves, the cloud will simply become another resource – another processor core – that smartphones can tap into. Photoshop, for example, would perform lightweight edits locally – but the moment you do anything complex, the cloud would kick in. Likewise, the cloud could be leveraged to bridge the gap between mobile and desktop graphics.
If technology has taught us anything, though, it’s that a time will come when chip making processes are so advanced that the SoC in your smartphone is 10 (or 100) times the speed of today’s CPUs and GPUs. Eventually, you won’t need the cloud as a crutch, or a desktop PC that you wheel out whenever you need to do some 3D modelling. Eventually, it will seem completely unfathomable that computing once consisted of sitting in front of a variety of large beige/black/silver cuboids. Heck, eventually, anything more than a brain-implanted interface will seem clunky.
Trust me, in a few years, when you have a single, pocketable computer that can do just about anything – from streaming movies, to making contactless payments, to playing the latest version of Crysis – you will wonder why you ever thought that tablets or ultrabooks would be the next big thing.