My next computer will be whatever pro-level laptop Apple releases next. That’s kind of a given. I don’t like desktop computers because I can’t throw one in my bag, use it on the tram, and have everything at my fingertips wherever I happen to be. I’m a laptop guy. There are rumours about case revisions, new CPUs from Intel, yadda yadda. They’ll release a new MacBook Pro, and that will be my new MacBook Pro. Fine. After that though, things get a little murky. What will my next next computer be? That’s more difficult to determine. I’m not sure if it will even be a computer as we know it.
Remember mainframes? These massive, mostly infallible computing behemoths that would never ever fail. But when they did, everyone went home, because there was no way to do any work without them. That thing on your desk, while it shares basic components with computers of today, was little more than a screen and keyboard. All the heavy lifting was done downstairs in the massive fluorescently-lit, Antarcticly-cooled room, populated by people in lab coats, who mutter to themselves in acronyms. Sound familiar? Centralised computing is coming back. We call it a web application, we call it software as a service, we call it Facebook, we call it salesforce.com, we call it Windows Live, we call it the iTunes Store.
Computers are getting bigger
At the biggest end of the big-computer scale, you’ve got people like Google and, um, well, Google. They’ve got one of the biggest computers in the world, and anyone can use it. The pedants amongst us will point out that it’s actually quite a number of little computers, but that doesn’t really matter. Functionally, it’s one big computer. And we can do whatever we want with it. Amazon has something similar, and has been around longer than Google’s offering. Sun’s got something like that, and VMWare, Parallels and dozens of others either offer products allowing a regular person to use a slice of their computers to pretend its one of theirs.
Computers are getting smaller
While computers are getting bigger, they’re also getting smaller. And I’m not talking about MacBook Airs or EEE PCs, I’m talking about actual computing power. Moore’s Law. Gruber did a good comparison of the power of an iPhone vs the power of a variety of older Macs. Turns out the the iPhone is very generally comparable to the original Blue & White PowerMac G3 (coincidentally, the last desktop computer I used as a primary computer). All the power of a PowerMac G3 in your pocket. Newer phones from Nokia or Sony Ericsson are similarly powerful. And that’s sitting in your pocket!
Simultaneously, wireless Internet connection speeds are getting faster. Much faster. The mobile phone I have right now can transfer at a theoretical 56k/sec. Very slow. I have a wireless Internet card that I’ve seen transferring 1024k/sec in real world situations – on a moving train! My next phone will have that kind of speed built-in. This stuff is only going to get faster.
Put it all together
Network-enabled applications, online data storage, big computers far away, shrinking personal computers, and very fast mobile Internet access. My next next computer might not be a computer at all, but a subscription to a virtual computer that I can access with a pocket computer that we used to call a phone. In order to have the life that I currently store in my laptop with me, I won’t have to carry my big laptop anymore, just a small pocket computer. High resolution versions of my photos, music, movies, writing, email – everything would live up there. I’d carry around the access to it in my pocket.
Integration. Someone’s got to figure out a way for all these independent online applications to work together and share data, or else nothing will get off the ground.
Security and privacy. How do I make sure no one goes snooping in my virtual computer? If it’s a physical thing, I can keep an eye on it. Virtually, well, who’s to be sure?
Well, we’ve got to start building some of this stuff. Lots of the building blocks have been created, they just have to be put together in a consumer-accessible way. Apple’s slowly heading in this direction, I think, using a slightly different method of simply plastering MacOS in as many places as they can, and working out the details later. Their .Mac service is a dark horse, I think, in making cloud computing totally effortless for Mac users. We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly exciting times ahead.