Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The maturing of computer technology.

I am not one to make predictions about the future of technology because most any attempt at this effort is in vain. Technology usually advances much faster and in different ways than can be foreseen. Nonetheless, I would like to make a very general and subjective prediction about technology.

Within the next five years we will finally see a real maturity in technology.

I have long held that in all of our technological achievement in the area of IT we have been living in immaturity compared to what computers are really capable of. I think that era is finally coming to an end.
There are three hurdles that need to be overcome before technology can properly mature. First, computers need to be fast and cheap. This is quickly becoming a reality. For stationary computing this is already a reality. My brother built a decently spec'ed PC for $250. I think it has a 1.7Ghz processor and 1 Meg of RAM. The system is very responsive and does everything he needs a computer to do. This sort of power at a low price point needs to migrate to the portable space.
Internet access must be cheap and ubiquitous. Technologies the WiMAX are starting to make this a reality. The FCCs approval to use the "white space" freed up by the soon migration from analog TV airwaves to digital is also a huge push in this direction. Soon we will never have to worry about being in a coverage area or near a hotspot to get Internet access. The White Space Consortium (which consists of players such as Google and Microsoft) claim they can bring free broadband to 95% of the United States.
Standards must be universal. In today's world proprietary protocols are standing in the way of innovation. To understand this, look at the Microsoft Word format. It can only be reliably read and written to using Microsoft Office. Office, while not a bad product, is very expensive and exists with pretty much no competition. There are other document processing software solutions on the market, but nobody is using it because the need to be able to read and write in the Office format is crucial because everyone uses it. Another way to look at this is the Internet. The Internet has had a set of standards to operate for a long time, but because for the longest time everyone used Microsoft Internet Explorer, and it was designed to force developers into using non-standard code that could not or would not interact with other web browsers. This lock-in resulted in large amounts of web pages running on poor code that wouldn't work anywhere else. The success of Firefox has changed this. In Internet Explorer 8 Microsoft is committing themselves to web standards for the very first time. It is important that regardless of where you are bringing up a web page, on your iPhone, Playstation 3, or Mac that the page renders properly. This sort of interoperability is only possible through open standards. Consumers should not care about what hardware or software is powering their devices. It should be immaterial to them. Consumers should be able to reliably send data to each other without any thought at all as to whether the recipient will be able to receive that data properly. Software engineers should be able to design and implement systems that will naturally work across devices. They should not be forced to rewrite code for every piece of hardware and software in the marketplace.
Once these three challenges have been met, and I think we will reach this within the next five years, we can start to fully unlock the real potential of computing. It will only then be on the software engineers to write the applications that will make it happen.

I believe there are also some more specific predictions that I think are likely to be true, but are more likely to just be words.
I think in the coming future the desktop will be meaningless. We will all carry around a PDA. This device will be very similar to what the iPhone and gPhone do now. Through a limited interface you will be able to do most of the same things you do on your personal computer. Like the iPhone they will not just be really small computers, they will also be a phone, GPS device, and support other technologies.
When we get home we will simply plug this PDA in to a base station which will provide us with a full sized keyboard, mouse, monitor, speakers, etc. When we plug it into our TV it becomes an IP-TV device and a full gaming system. On an airplane we simply plug it into the back of the seat in front of us and we will again be presented with a full sized keyboard, mouse and monitor. In fact, everywhere we go we only have to plug our PDA in to the provided base station and we have the experience of full computing. Even at the grocery store we can simply plug this device into our cart and know what groceries we need to buy.
Another powerful feature of this device is that it only really acts as a gateway between yourself and the Internet. It will not actually store much of anything. All of your data and services will reside on the Internet. All of your work and/or school documents, pictures, phone list, etc. will be on a web server somewhere. If you don't have your device with you, you can simply borrow a friend's and login to your web services and you won't miss a beat. The same thing is true if you lose and/or replace it. Even the video games you purchased will only physically exist somewhere on the Internet. You will never have to worry about losing or breaking any of your information or digital services. Data recover will become obsolete for the average consumer.
There are two problems I foresee. The most obvious problem with this scenario is security. Once our data is online, it only takes a smart hacker or a simple security flaw for our personal information to be made immediately public. The issue is that currently the average user is personally controlling the security of their own data, and they are not doing a very good job at it. By placing the onus of security on highly paid experts we may actually be more secure in this situation. Better encryption and security models will have to be developed to ensure that these experts don't make serious mistakes that potentially threaten the data security of millions.
The second problem I foresee is privacy. The consumer must trust the company hosting the data to be honest with that data. I think this will be real problem. ISPs are already writing EULAs that essentially give them full reign over the data that their customers transmit over the Internet. They are following this up by taking that data and selling it to third parties that implement data mining to build maps about consumer habits that they can then resell to advertisers. I believe that this dangerous financial scheme will hit the online data storage service market in full effect. There is too much money to be made for this to not happen.

So that is where I see the future of computer technology to be headed. Time will tell.