April 4, 2011

∴ Three Ages of Computing

I have this small computer in my pocket, nearly all the time now. It's gotten me thinking about how I used to use computers a lifetime ago, at home and then in college, and how I use them now. And how we'll all be using them in the years to come. I think that's what Steve Jobs was alluding to when he spoke at the iPad 2 unveiling a couple of months ago.

Kevin Kelly recently published a book, What Technology Wants, in which he details the progress of technology and its symbiotic relationship with man. He discusses the pace of technological change, and how that pace has dramatically accelerated over the past century. My TRS-80 computer was the cat's pajamas when I was programming it in the early 1980s, but if someone had handed me a modern-day iPhone when I was programming it well into the night I'd have thought I had received a gift from the distant future. It's been only thirty years since, yet from almost anywhere I am, I'm connected to everything in the online world and every human near a telephone. Every few months, some new online service comes along to make these devices even more useful. Yet we're only living in the second age of computing.

Computing ages are marked by the way we use the technology, because the computers we desire, buy, use and eventually leave behind are just parts and plugs until we make them part of our daily life.

The first age of personal computing was about the computer as iconic device. The technology existed on an altar of sorts, usually a smallish table placed in a special place in the home. Or, just as likely, in a dedicated room in a special building on campus or in the workplace. We used the technology by going to the computer, using it, and walking away. The home computer was usually powered down when not in use.

Laptop computer sales exceeded those of desktop machines for the first time in 2008, marking the start of the second age. This age is marked by portability, where the computer stays with you. Since then it's been a mobile world. Ridiculously heavy laptops gave way to thin and light models. After a few years of single-purpose Treos and Blackberries, Apple put a mass-market multi-purpose computer in a cell phone in 2007. It's now common to see and use a pocket-sized computer. And this past year the same company inaugurated what some have called a new category of computing device, a tablet machine called the iPad.

All of these machines bear one significant thing in common: they're untethered from the desktop and no longer hold an honored place in the home or workplace. They sit on your lap as you watch television or lay in bed, and go in a bag as you leave the house. They fit in your pocket, go on vacation, carry your reading materials to the pool. They're as common as water, and getting nearly as cheap. Consider what you pay for household water in a year, and the price of a new machine with an average lifetime of three years.

The next, and third age of computing, will be marked by machines as small and embedded in our lives as to be part of our person. You will be the computer. Input devices become accessories, like ear-rings or a choker necklace. This is less science fiction than it sounds.

Consider eyewear displays, or the shoe-mounted piezo-electric power cells that can re-charge electronics by walking in them. They're expensive and uncommon, but that will change over time. They'll become more aesthetically pleasing as the electronics within are further miniaturized.

Data gloves allow users to manipulate on-screen objects in three dimensions, without a mouse. Current models are clumsy and wire-bound, but how long will it take for someone to outfit a slim pair of Isotoner-like gloves with thin, embedded wires, and gyroscope and Bluetooth chips?

Audio can be projected to a user by close-fitting ear-ware, and a microphone can be embedded in a necklace, or even a thin skin patch.

Components can be inductively re-charged on the night table.

The descendant of the smartphone computer stays in your pocket (or embedded in your body), sending a data-rich overlay to your glasses.

And you forget you are computing, and begin augmented living.

We thought it odd when people began "talking to themselves" in past years, when really they were using a hands-free device. It'll appear odd to see people gesturing to themselves, too, but that feeling will pass.

This stuff is all available today. Miniaturization takes time, but less time as the pace of technical advance continues to accelerate. The key to success is getting the pieces to act as a whole, in a way that accommodates itself to your lifestyle, rather than requiring you to accommodate yourself to the technology. Fine integration is the mark of the best smartphones and laptops these past few years. It's what drives the new market in tablet technology. As the technical bits of a device melt away, the device becomes the application you're using it for, and you forget all about the device itself. Integration is what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said

These are post-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive. And the software, hardware, and applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than on a PC.

He was describing the iPad 2, but he was also describing everything that comes after. When the computer blends seamlessly into your lifestyle, to where you no longer notice it, you become the computer.