We’re going to talk about what’s coming – about the future. But to do so, we first have to go back to the past – 30 years back, to be exact. In 1981 Adam Osborne had just unveiled his Osborne 1 computer, the first portable (or laptop) to hit the small but growing PC market. The Osborne computer was indeed portable, but just barely so. Even a strong young man had trouble carrying one more than a few blocks. But this early computer made history in another way.
Back then, the general assumption was that anybody who wanted to use a personal computer would have to know how to program. Osborne aggressively challenged that premise, and predicted that in the future less than one in ten PC users would be programmers. His statement caused furious debate at the time, but these days it’s just limpid fact. Most people happily surf the Web, check their e-mail, compose text, construct spreadsheets, play games, and do a thousand other things – all without writing a single line of code themselves.
Cycle forward to today … and tomorrow. Both Apple and Microsoft have announced big changes to their next operating system releases. The announced changes will make both feel more like tablets than desktops. Both will offer access to apps, those nifty micro-programs that are so much fun to use, so easy to get, and so cheap that nobody minds dumping those no longer useful or used.
Here’s a prediction: by 2016, most computers available to consumers are going to look and act just like today’s iPhones and iPads. That is, they will be able to communicate like cell phones, they will all have built-in GPS, and they will feature cameras and touch-screen interfaces. Most importantly, they will depend on apps instead of expensive, pre-loaded software for the functionality users will want. In fact, what we now call computers will have largely faded from the scene – except for some business and gaming applications. Personal computers will be replaced by mobile devices of one sort or another.
I don’t expect the kind of pushback Adam Osborne got for his prediction. For one thing, what I’ve described is already beginning to take place. Tablets and smart phones are replacing desktop computers and laptops in many homes and businesses. The app business is thriving, with hundreds added to “app store” inventories every month. All indicators point to a post-computer future. Your children’s kids will wonder what a computer desk was for.
The cloud will grow in importance to this new digital world, and that’s another replay of history. Back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, we used to call it time-sharing, and it allowed us to search enormous databases without taxing the capabilities of our small computers and dumb terminals. We relied instead on renting computing power from the water-cooled giants of IBM and other industrial firms. Ever wonder why some of the older business parks have big, glassy areas in the fronts of many buildings? They were put there when those buildings were constructed, to show off the resident firm’s computer. It typically filled the room and was a point of great corporate pride. The techs who worked in these glass-fronted rooms often wore white lab coats and gloves.
All that said, some things won’t change – at least not much. The Web will still function much as it does now, as time goes by perhaps more as a foundation for social sites than as an entity of its own. There will probably still be websites for some time to come, although some businesses already question the need for them, choosing to go straight to social sites instead.
The world will change a lot during the next five years, at a faster pace than it ever has before. How much more change will there be by 2020? The short answer: a great deal. We’ll report it to you as soon as it becomes clear to us. After all, at Borrell that’s our job.