The future of PCs

A while back I wrote a post on the death of the computer chain store, and I speculated a bit on where the PC was going:

The PC business is definitely going through a transition. Somehow I think the future of the PC is your mobile phone…or maybe your TV. It will practically disappear. In some ways this makes sense, but until the I/O interface is figured out so that people can actually use it in a sophisticated way the prospect makes me cringe.

I remember thinking about how the “mobile phone” would take over the PC’s functions. I wish I had written this in my article, because it’s less credible for me to talk about this now. I honestly did think about this at the time. What came to mind was “projection”, that the small computer you would wear would somehow project a screen onto a surface (so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the small screens on mobile phones), detect your finger movements for manipulating objects on the screen (in place of a mouse), and it would project a keyboard onto a surface so that you could type on a keyboard “anywhere”. You wouldn’t have to carry a physical keyboard with you. It would detect all this through one or more cameras. I thought of the “computer you wear” as the phone you carry with you. Well, a young engineer at MIT, Pranav Mistry, came up with such a thing. Only it looks more like a necklace. He calls it “Sixth Sense” (h/t to Tammy Bruce). I’m not taking credit. Obviously thinking of it and implementing it are very different. Implementation takes more skill and effort. Take a look:

Mistry takes it farther than what I had thought of, integrating physical objects and media into the digital world, and vice-versa. It is a further optimization of the idea of computing = digital media, though my hat’s off to Mistry for doing it in a very innovative way that gets us beyond having to use armatures to manipulate digital stuff. Now if we could just integrate programming into this new idiom somehow… Hmmm. Some new ideas are percolating up…

The state of PCs

My 4-year-old Windows laptop died on me about a week ago. I think it was the hard drive controller. I set up my Windows desktop machine which I haven’t used in a year or two. That took some work, getting it set up the way I wanted, getting all the security updates, and updating drivers. Anyway, I’m shopping for a new laptop now.

In the news, I heard last week that Circuit City would be closing stores or laying off employees. Something like that. Yesterday I heard they’re filing for bankruptcy. It’s reminiscent of what happened to CompUSA almost a year ago, except that the company isn’t being liquidated. They’re trying to restructure. Nevertheless it shows another decline in the PC/electronics space.

Best Buy seems to be doing okay. They’re opening a store in my town soon…in the same building where our CompUSA used to be. Poetic, no?

And then there’s Staples, another place where you can get a Windows computer.

I feel like Microsoft still doesn’t have its act together. It seems like they started going off the rails in terms of their technology offerings in 2006. I’ve been talking to friends and reading articles from technical folks, and it sounds to me like Microsoft ended support for Windows XP too soon. I know they’re always anxious to retire a version after so many years, but from what I’m hearing getting a $600 (or less) Windows laptop is almost pointless now. Vista is a CPU and memory hog, and it runs applications slower than XP does unless you have a top of the line, high-end machine costing $1,000+.

I’ve been eyeing a Macbook, giving it a chance. I’ve been hearing good things about Macs. I’m just cautious at the moment. I’ve been doing some calculations and it looks like I could actually get a decent, current Macbook, get Windows XP Pro to go with it, and spend slightly LESS than I paid for my last Windows laptop! So that may be an option.

I watched the online presentation of Leopard on the Apple website and I was impressed. A feature that brought back memories for me was its ability to set up “spaces”. You can set up multiple desktops and switch between them, allowing you to group your work into different projects you’re working on. The guy demonstrating it showed how it worked. He set up four desktops, and had something running in each. Then he switched between them. You could watch as one set of apps. (one desktop) “slid” off the screen, and the next set (the other desktop) “slid” on. It reminded me of a system utility I used to run on a “Fat Mac” at my local library in the mid-1980s called “Switcher”. The classic Macs could not multitask. You could only load and run one application at a time. Andy Hertzfeld came up with a way to load multiple apps. in memory at once on a 512K Mac, and you could task-switch between them. You could even go back to the desktop if you wanted to, without quitting your currently running application. Bringing another app. into memory was easy. You just found its icon on the desktop and ran it like you would any other. When you task-switched, you could literally watch as one application “slid” off the screen, and the next one “slid” on. The one displayed on the screen would run. The others would go into suspended animation. The reason I liked it at the time was that most Macs only had floppy drives, and loading apps. was slow. If you wanted to copy and paste something from one app. to the next, you literally had to select what you wanted and “copy” in one app., quit out of it, which would take you back to the desktop, then run the next app. and paste the item in. People kind of tolerated this back then because hardly any microcomputers multitasked. “Switcher” made things easier. You could copy from the source, select an app. that was already pre-loaded, and then paste the item into it. Since OS X multitasks you can have off-screen stuff running at the same time.

I remember in some talk I watched Alan Kay give (I believe it was his ETech 2003 presentation) he said that with the Smalltalk system at Xerox PARC they had the ability to create multiple desktops, because they figured people would want to group activities into separate spaces. It was part of the design. You can do the same thing in Squeak today using the Morphic interface, though now the multiple desktops are called “Projects”. Interesting how things are catching up to Smalltalk. 🙂