Thursday, September 08, 2011

Do we still need a computer?

It sounds like a stupid question, but I'm not asking if we need all the things that a computer allows us to do; just - do we still need a computer? There's some serious blurring of lines as to exactly what a computer is, yet there's still a social perception. A console such as the PS3 isn't a computer; a Smart Phone such as the iPhone isnt a computer. A computer still seems to be defined in a strict form either in laptop or desktop designs. Yet what do those forms do that the others don't?

If all the normal home computer does is access the internet; send emails, IM or use VoIP - smart phones do that; need a bigger screen - tablets have that covered. Graphic heavy games - consoles. So given all that why do any of us need a 'computer'?

Both Google's Android and Apple's iOS allow wireless synching with their respective clouds so there's no longer a need to synchronise calendars, contacts etc with a base computer. As mentioned Apple has it's AirPrint that currently only a few HP printers support.
This is great until someone wants to print out that contract, or burn that home video clip to disc; or heck just want to backup their data - at which point these devices fail.

But aren't these problems user created - a reliance on the physical? Why should I need to print this paper when I can email it? Why should I need to burn this home movie when I can wireless stream it to my TV? Why should I need to backup anything when the cloud has my back? Once everything goes virtual will there be a need for the computer in its traditional form?

There's the legal aspects of conducting all business virtually and with no paper trail; and there are questions over who exactly owns 'your' work when it's sitting on 'their' cloud; and whose responsibility it is if it vanishes in a puff of digital smoke. However, all of those can be solved with the appropriate legislative changes. So do we still need a computer?

No. They're handy and still much faster and easier to type on, but that's a functional characteristic; there's nothing stopping a plug-in keyboard for those long data work. They still have more processing power than phones and consoles; but with server farms and such companies as OnLive streaming games there's no reason such can't act as smart-terminals with the majority of the processing being done off-site.

There's already a ubiquitous connector type in the form of USB; we already have Bluetooth and 802.11 for wireless communication and TCP/IP for routing it around and WPA for encrypting it all. While a much maligned company Microsoft's DirectX acts as an ideal path for a shared functional language to allow a TV and a phone to talk to one another.

So if most of this is already around why are we still using computers? Perhaps it's down to competition. It's sounds wrong after all competition is good, but consider a company such as Nokia - they make phones; but they don't run the big servers to act as a cloud. They could do, but that would be a high expense. They could contract out, but why should they when they can just allow their phones to connect to a computer and get the user to do all the syncing and backups?

Apple on the other hand provide both, but they also sell computers; so do Microsoft via their operating system Windows - they have no interest in removing an entire section of their profitable production Oddly enough Google are perhaps the only one who can lead the way.

They're already got the cloud in place and they have no real investment in the traditional computer format. They've the interfaces in place to communicate with their own products; could this be enlarged to provide universal access in the same manner as DirectX allowing a Google Android phone to talk to a non-Google product? Hell yes a Sky+ App already exists for Android. They also have their equivalent of AirPrint called CloudPrint. For those physical requirements the majority of Android phones use USB ports.

So where are we at - Android Phone; Android Tablet; and OnLive gaming. Add in a CloudPrint printer and an external keyboard and there's no computer in sight.


Orphi said...

But if I didn't have a computer, how would I run POV-Ray? ;-)

FlipC said...

You'd write it on your tablet then send it to a cloud farm for processing :-)

Orphi said...

Man, if I had my own render cloud, that would be sweet!

(Actually, you can do this now with Amazon Cloud Compute. It'll cost you a fortunate though…)

FlipC said...

With the rise of the cloud and more and more turning to 'underpowered' devices I can see the need for farms also increasing; which in turn should lower the prices through competition.

Ben said...

Yes, we will still need computers. A tablet screen is just too small for any meaningful work to be done on it.

Onlive has the issue of latency for any fast twitch games.

What I would agree with is that we have a great change coming in the computing market, and that we'll probably see less diversity in desktop machines. Apple can tie people into their eco-system, and I would suggest that soon we'll see Intel and MS collaborating on a similar eco system for a Windows 8 machine.

For most people, their next desktop (or this one) will be their last dedicated machine. As a developer, I will always need one, but a tablet will definitely replace my laptop for personal use. Which may be a while, it's still going strong after 3 years.

FlipC said...

Plug the tablet into a TV and have that as the display and the tablet act as a keyboard+trackpad :-)

I agree with OnLive latency issues; however consider that we're already 'training' the next generation to accept that via both display, controller and multiplayer lag and that measured lag appears little different from the console versions.

As to the lack of diversity amongst desktop machines; I agree that may be the end result. However prior to any demise is often a major burst as each manufacturer tries to be the one who survives the fall. This may in fact result in better machines.

As a developer again I agree you'll probably always need one; yet consider instead that you're a specialist and that such tend to require specialist equipment - and that's what the 'computer' may end up as.

Orphi said...

Some decades ago a saw a guy predict that “the future of the computer is to disappear”.

So far, it hasn't happened yet. Computers are becoming smaller, less conspicuous and more ubiquitous, but they haven't fully disappeared yet.

Then again, the same futurists predicted that your entire house would be computer-controlled by now, and yet I have a dozen remote controls just to operate my TV and stereo system! There's no technical reason why you can't have a computer control everything. It's just that nobody has set this up. And I doubt they ever will.

As to cloud computing… last time I checked, using Amazon EC2 takes a hell of a lot of setting up. You basically have to install Windows, install and configure the application(s) you want, feed it whatever data you want it to process, and then tell it to go. And there's no way to script or automate any of this.

Compare this to the task of printing a document. No matter what type of printer nor what features it has, you tell your computer “print this”, and it prints. Until handing off compute tasks becomes that easy, I think service availability and competition will remain quite limited. The dream of buying computer time the way you buy semiskimmed milk will remain forever in the distance.

sager said...

Very informative and well written post! Quite interesting and nice topic chosen for the post.

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