The future of the computer


Updated: June 3, 2011

By computer, I mean things that we use to browse, listen to music, pretend to have friends, and sometimes do actual work. All right, there are many kinds, from big enterprise servers via desktop workstations via notebooks down to netbooks and finally ending with smartphones. Throw in a handful of media centers, streamers and tablets, and you get chaos. And for every type there's a whole lot of opinions and predictions, all fatalistically fixated on one question. Will it die soon?

Some people like deaths. Every four minutes, there's an article that says that Firefox is going to die soon. Unrelated to this article, of course. Then, there's the desktop dying. Then, it's the laptop. And so forth. All right, enough child talk. Let me tell you the REAL future, so you can invest your monies wisely.

Teaser

Note: Image adapted from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Control group

To prove that I'm talking pure brilliance, let's examine my Digital Armageddon article. Written approx. two years ago, it debated a handful of doomsday scenarios that were popular at that time, including the Conshagger virus thingie and, more importantly, the death of Firefox, imminently predicted as soon as Chrome was born.

Examining the trends - mathematics, if you will - I noticed a very linear relation between the Chrome market share growth to that of Internet Explorer's decline. Which ruled out Firefox, but did not stop mathematically challenged people from writing spicy and provocative articles that garner clicks. Here's a simple illustration for you:

Browser

I was right then, and I'm right now. Two years later, Firefox is nowhere near dead. It continues to steadily gain, almost becoming the dominant browser in Europe. What more, Internet Explorer has lost another 10-15 points, all of which had gone to Chrome. Therefore, I'm a genius and everyone else is wrong. Now that we've established my predictability [sic], let's talk computer future.

The desktop

If you ever hear someone say that we'll be using smartphones in our office environment next year, you have a moral obligation to roundhouse kick them in the dingleberries. There are many reasons why the desktop won't die any time soon. Let's elaborate.

Work demands

Desktops are used by people who do actual work, like architects, software developers, artists, photographers, and suchlike, people who need their screens to be as big as possible and their computing power as rich and revvy as available. People who need to use CAD software require multiple cores, tons of RAM, powerful graphics card, and a whole lot of monitor space to actually be able to do their stuff. Such people cannot afford to use tiny smartphones as their primary computing asset. Or even high-end laptops.

Virtualization

3D rendering

CPU working

Thermodynamics

On top of that, there's this thing called heat. Powerful computers tend to generate a lot of heat, with specific energy density exceeding that of nuclear reactors, believe it or not. You cannot channel excess heat away without sufficient spatial accommodations, which include massive cases, air flow aided by massive fans, cooling grills and large heatsinks. Unless someone invents a new alloy, metal can only be made that small before it loses its effectiveness. Convection, diffusion, dissipation, you name it. Tough.

Nuclear power station

Note: Image taken from Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

I'm fully aware of the fact that future chips will be more powerful for the same amount of energy. But the work demands will grow at the same pace. In other words, if an engineer needed a top-range 486 machine in 1993 for his work, he still needs a top-range machine in 2011 for the same type of work. The complexity, the scope and the pace may have changed, but the demand remains in the upper end of the power spectrum.

Security, so to speak

Smartphones and laptops are easily stolen. 100-kg desktops that make more noise than a scrambling fighter jet are not so. You cannot afford to have smartphones thrown about. Then, sensitive work must sometimes be confined to the work environment, which eliminates mobility. In fact, mobility and portability are your enemy here, especially if we're talking state-of-the-art research, academy work, business secrets, and similar.

Money

Children, teens and impressionable young people may like their tiny gadgets, but when you think about it, it's their parents paying. Even so, these things cost much less than a top-range desktop. People with money tend to buy big and expensive things. Companies selling computers have their best interest in increasing their revenue. The margin on mobile Internet devices is quite small, whereas it is heavy and fat on high-end hardware. Prestige, combined with business demands, will always dictate the top market needs.

Money

Age

Most people today, at least people who matter and actually make money, have not grown with a mobile computing device hooked into their bloodstream. Pretty much anyone above the age of 35-40 is set in their ways. Until all of these people have died out, which will take about two generations, the mindset won't ever fully change.

It's no different than the transition from horse to steam and steam to petrol. No different from piston engines being replaced by jet engines. Apart from backward compatibility, real-world needs and demands, the human nature will require many decades slowly adapting to new realities, with entire generations passing by before significant changes take place on a critical-mass level. We may be technologically advanced, but our instincts and motives are as primitive as they were a hundred years ago.

Baboon

Desktop will remain the functional reality of everyone raised anywhere between 70s to mid 90s if not later. They may experiment with new technologies. They may even love laptops and smartphones and use them with glee and skill. But deep down, the instinct will remain.

Availability

Lastly, the important factor of 24/7 use. Desktops are designed to run for many years, clogged with dust and grease and subjected to prolonged abuse. No mobile device can handle as much stress, heat or dirt without going Kaput.

You can leave your desktop, twined with a decent UPS, powered on forever, downloading porn, rendering 3D stuff or whatever. It will continue chugging along happily, for five, six years or more, gathering a total uptime of a small universe. No other computing device can manage that except maybe heavy-duty high-end laptops designed for heavy use. Even so, you will probably hibernate or suspend your laptops now and then, lose Wireless connectivity as you travel and whatnot.

Uptime

What will happen?

Do you know why the desktop share will drop but never die out? The reason is as follows: people with modest to average computing demands did not have the right kind of technology that met their needs until recently. The growth of small computing devices is sufficient for their work, which is why we're seeing a decline in desktop sales. In mid 90s, computers were pretty much one size. Even in mid-2000s, there was little you could do if you only wanted a computer that plays music. It changed with improved technology, opening possibilities that were previously masked by packaging factor limitations. However, for high-end users, the equation remains unchanged.

Desktop will remain the preferred choice for the top 20% users, returning handsome margin that will represent about 40-50% total profit for hardware companies. This is one of the reasons why ATI and Nvidia push so aggressively with new cards all the time, because they need to dictate the high end of the envelope. Don't forget the gamers. It's such a lucrative multi-billion industry.

Gaming

Desktop is like radio. TV came, but it did not destroy the radio. VCRs came, and they still did not destroy the radio. CDs came, but radio lingered. Even today, it's a very popular form of art and entertainment. It may not be as exciting as the new generation of iPhone, but there's something about it that survives the flow of time.

Desktop is like printed books. You can download digital copies to your machine, but there's something magical about holding a was of paper, smelling the ink, leafing through, taking the words in. Desktop stays, market share 20-25%.

The notebook

Laptops are the next big thing after desktop. They slowly grew in importance even as they became smaller, lighter and more powerful. Laptops, also fashionably called notebooks, are the stepping stone between high-end workstation use and casual mobile needs.

Notebook

The golden middle

Laptops have an important place in the computing spectrum, because they offer power and mobility, at varying ratios. If you think about it carefully, low-end and high-end laptops are not cost-effective, but they reign supreme in the middle range.

If you want a very modest machine, with an on-board graphics card and just a simple processor, then you're probably better off with a netbook. You'll get pretty much the same results for half the cost. Similarly, very high-end laptops suffer from too much heating, they are big and bulky and much more expensive than desktops of comparable qualities.

If you have about 60-70% budget needed for a very decent desktop, you may compromise and go for a product that offers about 50% performance, but gives mobility in return. There's also style to be considered. In fact, style can compensate for both price and performance. Apple is the best example. People will pay more to enjoy the brand and the unique looks. However, Apple combines hardware with software, which is part of their marketing magic.

Macbuntu

What will happen?

Laptop will too settle in its comfortable equilibrium. Mid-range laptops will remains dominant as the ultimate mobile device. Netbooks won't be able to bite into this segment, because vendors will not be able to offer similar results for the same margin. Likewise, size plays a crucial factor. Our thumbs won't get any smaller in the coming fifty generations or so. Our eyes won't get any better, either. An average human will still need a handsome monitor and a full-size keyboard to work comfortably for extended periods of time. If you don't believe me, take your smartphone for an eight-hour work spin and compare your results in terms of back pain, wrist pain, headache, and words typed per minute, including the typos.

High-end laptops will remain the lucrative pick of the bold and beautiful. Macbooks are a great example. Do you need them? Maybe. Do you want them? Definitely. Are there any other mobile devices with monitor quality as good as Apple's high-end machines? No.

Notebooks will survive as the second mid to high range computing asset. It will remain the preferred business tool for people who require a blend of productivity and mobility. The market share will swing around 20% overall.

The netbook

This is one technology that may yet die. Netbooks are gaining popularity nowadays, especially in developing countries and emerging markets. Netbooks are also quite useful for people with low budget and low-end computing demands. If you only need to browse now and then, netbooks is the ideal solution; small, light, cheap, and still comfortable enough to handle and use. The ergonomics might be a little tough, but the return on investment is decent.

Netbook

The problem with netbooks is that they are so much easier to produce. High-end hardware capabilities are restricted to top vendors and big, rich companies with ample resources to pull high-volume sales. However, netbooks are so much more attainable, both to manufacture and buy.

If you want a computer that actually does a lot, then you want a notebook. If you need a mobile gadget for emergencies and some lightweight work on the go, then you might want to consider a smartphone. The combination of price, ergonomics and actual computing capabilities could render the netbook unnecessary.

The major advantage netbooks have over smartphones is that they are still so much easier to use. After all, you get a full keyboard, a mouse pointer device, lots of external ports, and a big, handsome screen. Touchscreens also remain fairly primitive. But if the phone vendors figure out how to make their monkey devices usable to a fair degree of comfort, then people might be tempted to ditch netbooks.

UNR operating system

What will happen?

If smartphones progress significantly in the ergonomics, they could slice into the netbook market chunk. Tablets also pose a risk, as they blend phone use with netbook size and comfort, although they remain pricey and not as good as the competition, yet.

Currently, it looks as if the netbook is not going to die anytime soon. Half across the globe, it is still the most cost-effective computing device, in terms of price, size, capabilities, and overall usability. Not quite a high-end gaming rig, but then, it has some ten inches of screen equity, a decent resolution and enough hard disk space to store a handful of data. Internet connectivity can also be quite good. But all this may change.

Netbooks will hold as little as 5% market and as much as 30%, all depending how the competition with the smartphone turns out. This will mainly be dictated by the giants like Intel and AMD. The big CPU vendors may eventually choose to leave the smartphone market dominance to ARM and focus on other segments.

The smartphone

Smartphones will never rule supreme. The reason is one and simple. It's not the screen resolution, because that will be fixed; it's not the computing power, because that will grow, as well. It's not the multitasking, nor the security, nor the price. It's not a hundred other technology related reasons you can think of now. It's not social fads, either.

It's the simple fact humans have TWO hands. Golly, mathematics!

Smartphones are HELD in one hand and USED with the other. This is a convenience and an inconvenience. Because if you want to use both your hands, you must place the device onto a solid surface, which turns it into a sort of a laptop, as well as negates its very phonetic nature. Furthermore, you then have a screen facing straight up, which is not handy for extended periods and the screen is too small to use from any reasonable distance.

Smartphones must not grow (too much) bigger in size, because they will become like netbooks. But they can't remain too small either, because human fingers are only so big for the foreseeable future, full keyboards are a must, even if virtual, and people don't want to squint down their noses all the time. Size matters, after all.

Smartphone size

Comfortable viewing distance is between 30-60 cm for most people, which is too far for smartphones, hence they can't really be used in two-hand mode easily. Moreover, there are very few circumstances where you'll have the combination of favorable lighting and good physical position, angle and distance to use your smartphones with both hands. Worst of all, they have not been designed for two-hand use.

What will happen?

Smartphones will most likely become the most popular SECOND choice after either a high-end desktop or a mid-to-high-end laptop. They will surely become the THIRD most popular choice. The market segment that will primarily use smartphones as their top computing asset will be the Failbook generation, who have little business needs.

The question is, what happens in 10-15 years time when today's teens grown into adults? Young people are addicted to their smartphones, so it's only logical that they will carry their trends and habits into the future. My prediction is that two camps will be formed; one, the smartphones diehard fans who will never give up their phones; two, the more moderate bunch, who will adapt to the more rigid business environment and trade some of the smartphone experience for the corporate office uses, however keeping smartphones dear and mighty in their hearts and hands.

Smartphones will continue to be the first choice with younger people, taking as much as 50% market with anyone under 25. In the digital family and business segment, the share will vary between 10-20% primary and 20-40% secondary choice, even though pretty much everyone will own one. The reason is, plain simple cellphones will no longer be available, so you will be forced to own a smartphone even if you only use it for phone calls.

Believe it or not, the smartphone's fate, or at least, the market share, will be decided by businesses. How many companies will be able to afford going 100% mobile, without losing productivity, comfort, security, and ease of use? The thing is, as long as PowerPoint remains the dominant form of presentation and Outlook the favorite choice of communication in the office, this won't change much. You will see more and more technicians, marketing people, salesmen, and low-computing personnel use smartphones, but the core business disciplines will remain lodged in the desktop and laptop segments. To sum it up, 20% primary share, as much as 100% overall in the second and third tier.

Total market share

Now, the important thing, my figures above represent the MAJOR use case for listed technologies, not the total share. We're not talking 100%, because there's nothing that says a person ought to use only one computing device, although most people won't need much more than that. However, the overall balance will be something like this:

Pie

High-end users will run one or more desktops, combined with a convenience device for lightweight use. This could be a netbook if they require comfort or maybe a smartphone.

Mid-range users will either run a desktop, if they are conservative or inclined toward static, home setups, including parents who want to control their kids and whatnot, or a mid-range laptop that offers good results for an affordable price. The second computing device will probably consist of a smartphone.

Low-end users will use smartphones, first and foremost, usually a single device. They might also own a laptop of some kind, probably a mid-range to low-range notebook, to compensate for the functionality that does not exist in smartphones.

Business will continue expanding into the mobile market, replacing some of the expensive static hardware for cheaper mobile devices with casual users that do not require too many CPU cycles. For instance, engineers will always need monster workstations; however, secretaries, administrative assistants, marketing people, or even managers do not really need i7 processors to write mails and prepare some bad-looking PowerPoint presentations. And we're done here, fellas.

Conclusion

That's it. The world that has it all, properly balanced. Nothing and no one is going to die any time soon. If anything, the one technology that may be in jeopardy is the netbook, stretched thin between notebook and smartphone. The rest will all keep their not so humble niches. There's nothing mystical and alarming about the growth of some segments and decline of others. Radio was once the king and now it isn't anymore. But it didn't die either, it just became an exclusive club for connoisseurs. The same will happen to desktop and laptop. And the smartphone will become the common people commodity, the muck. So if you're so excited about your ninth-generation iPhone, don't be, because everyone will soon have one, and you won't be special anymore.

So the death so often spoken about and dramatized is only a shifting of the reality to accommodate the technological and social changes. Too much focus is placed on the social element, with people forgetting how slow and backward the human nature really is. That's it, reality check completed. Enjoy. P.S. Einstein's image and the Baboon image are in public domain.

Cheers.

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