The future of computing will be mobile
Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
- Neils Bohr
The way I use computing devices is currently something of a mess. I regularly work in two different locations and have a desktop machine at each place, plus a high-powered desktop and a lower-powered media PC at home, which all run Windows. I have a MacBook Pro which runs OS X (and, occasionally, Windows through Parallels), plus an iPhone, and I sometimes use my Wife’s iPad (both iOS, of course) and will probably get one myself at some point (or maybe a Kindle, not sure). Plus, there are a couple of desktop machines which I use fairly regularly in different labs for running experiments (Windows). All told then, there are roughly eight or nine different computing devices which I regularly use, with three or four different operating systems. Managing files and data so that what I need is accessible on any particular device at any point in time is a massive hassle. What I’ve been doing for the last two years is an ad-hoc mixture of cloud-based solutions (GMail, Google Docs, Evernote, Mendeley) and carrying around a 500Gb USB hard-drive which contains all my documents and experimental data. Wherever I am, I plug in my hard drive and have everything I need, and I don’t store anything locally on any of the machines.
This solution kind-of works, but is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s insecure – I’m reasonably careful about doing regular backups, but I live in constant terror of my USB hard-drive being lost, or just breaking. Secondly, I still have to deal with different operating systems and environments – I tend to take my MacBook everywhere with me as there are some Unix applications I use for data analysis that don’t work well on my (desktop) Windows machines. This pretty much defeats the purpose of having all my data on the (much more portable) USB hard drive. Thirdly, getting data on and off the iOS devices is a mega-hassle because of Apple’s teeth-grindingly-awful sync-everything-through-iTunes system.
A couple of things this week have spurred me to thinking about the future of computing and how it might help to solve my problem (which I believe must be a fairly common one). The first was the Raspberry Pi computer going on sale – a tiny, and dirt cheap (£25) basic computer which can be used with any peripherals, and is designed to teach kids to program. This is naturally something I’m keen on, but Akira O’Connor wrote a blog post which opened my eyes to the fact that the Raspberry Pi could be used as a cheap ‘n’ easy solution for running experiments; you can program the experiment in your office (or anywhere you have a monitor and a keyboard) and when it comes time to run your experiment you just carry it into the lab and plug it into the peripherals there. No more transferring files, dealing with different OSs etc. You just take the whole computer with you, wherever you go.
Now, the R Pi is currently pretty limited as a platform (it’s designed for educational purposes after all) but there are other computing devices we carry with us all the time – our ‘phones. Calling them ‘phones’ these days is pretty much a misnomer, they’re actually pretty seriously capable mobile computers. I’m imagining a future device which has enough storage (say, a terabyte, minimum) and processing power in a portable format, so that it could entirely replace the hodge-podge of different devices I currently use.
Imagine a smartphone which of course you can use in all the ways we use smartphones now, but which also contains a desktop-like variant of the OS, which gets activated when you plug in a monitor and keyboard. Suddenly, all you need at all the places you work are peripherals – you carry all your data with you (with a robust back-up solution to some cloud-service, naturally), and work seamlessly in different locations, because you’re using the same computer and OS. Your ‘phone is the only computer you use, or need. You plug it into a monitor and keyboard at work to do spreadsheets, e-mail, or whatever, and at home you download a movie, and mirror your ‘phone’s screen on your TV in order to watch it. A very minimal dock accessory might provide a larger screen and a keyboard in a laptop-like form factor for when we really need to do work away from the office/home.
Ten years ago, the idea of carrying your entire music library with you was unbelievable; then along came the first generation iPod in 2001, and it’s now utterly routine. Likewise, a few years ago the scenarios in the previous paragraph would have seemed like outrageous fantasies, but it’s currently looking like it might be possible, or even likely before too long. There are a few (very) recent products which suggest we might be heading in this direction. The first is pictured at the top of this post – the Asus Padfone; an Android ‘phone that slots into a 10″ tablet form-factor, that then can be connected to a keyboard, for laptop-like usage. Crucially, the brain of the whole system is always the ‘phone - the tablet and keyboard are just peripherals. Another new device in this vein is the FXI Cotton Candy, not a ‘phone, but a pretty capable computer the size of a USB stick, which can run Android, or Ubuntu Linux, and can be plugged into almost any device (TV, monitor, laptop) via either USB or HDMI (video of it in action here). Storage is still a problem, with flash chips currently relatively expensive, but theoretically we’re pretty much there in terms of density - the latest specifications for SD cards cite potential storage for 2TB’s of data, on a postage-stamp sized card. This would fulfill most people’s current needs (although the continued penetration of HD video into everyday life is pushing demands for storage ever upwards). There’s potentially other options from new technologies as well. Processing horse-power is also nearly there, with modern mobile processors providing the capabilities of desktop systems from only a few years ago, and ‘phones based on the Tegra 3 (a quad-core processor! In a ‘phone!) just about to hit the market.
It’s not just about the hardware of course – the software has to keep up, and creating an adaptive OS which works well with almost any kind of peripheral (tablet, TV, keyboard, whatever) will be a significant challenge. Interestingly, also this week, the ‘Consumer preview’ of Windows 8 made its way around the internet. This is interesting for the current discussion because of Microsoft’s adoption of its ‘Metro’ interface (originally developed for Windows Mobile). Windows 8 is essentially two operating systems in one – Metro for use with touch-devices (i.e. tablets) and a ‘normal’ Windows desktop (start menu, taskbar, etc.) behind it. Early indications suggest some issues with this (two different versions of Internet Explorer that don’t interact at all? Really Microsoft?) but at least someone’s trying this kind of thing out.
So – in only a few years, our primary computers might be the ones we carry in our pockets (or even wear). These are not really new ideas, back in 2005 researchers at IBM’s Almaden lab sketched out a similar scenario, however it’s finally looking like it might be possible, reasonably soon. I for one will not be mourning the death of the desktop – I’ll happily be chucking the massive, heavy, grey boxes into the nearest skip as soon as it becomes remotely possible.