Since starting a computer repair business, I have often wondered where the computer industry is heading. But not from a “whats going to be the next whizz-bang technology” point of view, but how are ordinary people (with very little technical knowledge) going to be using computers in the future (and how it will impact my business).
From what I’ve seen, computers need to become easier to use (not necessarily faster… I can use a pentium2 for simple web surfing, and a pentuim3 for playing some more advanced games). They have already come a long way, but when I see people who need to be taught how to drag and resize windows, then I think we need something easier.
In the past I’ve theorised that mobile phones will be the computers of the future. I’ve since thought about that from a more generic point of view.
And I’ve also thought about similar “technologies” from the past, that might give a hint of what might happen in the future.
Lets start with Clocks. Go back a few hundred years, and you find that few people had clocks. Clock technology (eg grandfather clocks, hourglasses, etc) was about large timepieces, that were hand-made, expensive, inaccurate, and required a lot of maintenance (eg winding and repairing). And you needed a good education to read a clock (eg: my step daughter never really got the hang of analogue clocks. She always had digital clocks, so the incentive to learn to read analogue clocks wasn’t there… and I must admit, I struggled to learn analogue clocks myself)
Telephones would have had a similar phase of initial development, using large telephones, a tangle of wires, and a human switchboard operator. Although they weren’t as sophisticated as clocks (ie clocks would have had pendulums, springs and many many cogs), at least clocks were fully automated, whereas telephones required the manual intervention of the switchboard operator. But they were easy to use… just dial a number, or even better yet: just pick up the headset and tell the operator who you wanted.
Cars probably have a similar history to clocks. The started as an offshoot of the horse and carriage, add an engine, and you no longer need to maintain a horse stable. But the first cars (engines and chassis) were very unreliable, were hand made, needed a lot of maintenance, and had a limited range and speed. But you still needed to learn to drive the beasts… except learning to drive would have been quite simple in the early days (just steer, brake, and stay on the road. Change gears? whats that?).
Early computers were as large as a house, used a lot of power, were less powerful than a modern scientific calculator, were hand made, and required a lot of maintenance. And you needed to be a real bright spark to use one.
As progress and innovation improves our lives, you find:
Clocks got smaller and more accurate. You get mobile clocks (watches)… initially the fob watches that you put in a pocket (there is a strong similarity between fob watches and todays mobile cell phones), then the rise of the “swiss movement” wrist watches… they would only lose or gain a few minutes per day! By this stage, learning to read a clock would be part of the school system
Telephones also got smaller, telephone networks got bigger, the need to replace the human switchboard operator became a necessity, and so the automated switchboard was developed. Using a telephone is so simple, it doesn’t need to be taught at school.
Cars became more reliable and faster. But there is obviously no need to make them smaller, their function is to transport people, so the size cannot be changed much. But their mechanical nature meant that they still need regular maintenance by a mechanic. And with more cars on the road, the number of road rules increase, such that everyone must undergo an intensive training course in order to be allowed to operate a car on the roads.
Computers got smaller, more efficient, and faster. They start being used to replace more unreliable technologies (this process is still ongoing) like controlling elevators, clocks and watches, fuel injection timing, etc. They become more and more pervasive, and easier to use. You don’t really need to understand how to program your microwave, watch, elevator, mobile phone. This is probably why MS windows rose to where it is today… it was made easier to use, so more people could use a computer.
And the future?
Clocks are now everywhere. It used to be that if I didn’t have a wrist watch, I felt like something was missing. But now I can just look at my mobile phone, the car dashboard, or a wall somewhere. The only place you won’t find clocks, are at supermarkets (for marketing reasons: if you don’t know the time, you will shop more!) Clocks are now like paper, pens, or a shirt. You can wear them as a fashion statement. But mostly they are taken for granted. If one breaks, you bin it, and buy a new one.
Telephones are now merging with computer networks (eg VOIP). Soon, dedicated phone networks (over which you can also use the internet), will change to internet connections (over which you can also make phone and video calls). Mobile phones are currently at the “fob watch” stage, and should soon get to the wrist watch stage (maybe with a “bluetooth” headset or just hands free). Although more expensive than a watch, they are still thrown out when they break.
Cars probably won’t change much. There will always be more added features (bluetooth, more airbags, satnav, etc). Hopefully, there will also be a change in engine technologies, as current CO2 emitting engines will push the world to dangerous climate change, maybe even a global oceanic anoxic event. Cars could even become “slower”, as you get greater environmental efficiencies at slower speeds. But you will always need a mechanic to service your car, regardless of what it will look like in the future.
Computers are almost as pervasive as food. Most are maintenance free and disposable. The only exception is the “PC” (and to a lesser extent the mobile phone). One of the biggest problems with replacing a mobile phone, is transferring the data (phone book, photos, ringtones, etc). But newer phones have plugin memory cards, which make the process simple. But with a PC, the situation is worse. Important data can be scattered all over the hard drive… and in the windows registry (which cannot be simply copied from PC to PC). So tossing out a PC (for most non-tech people), usually involves a large data loss, or hiring an expert to transfer the data to the new PC.
Will this situation improve in the future? Yes. You can already start to see the beginnings of this with things like hotmail/gmail, where your emails are stored on the internet, and don’t need to be transferred from PC to PC.
Technically, internet speeds (ie internet infrastructure) are not fast enough to support a whole PC running all of its applications over the internet, but is should be possible to implement a “local cache” of data on the internet. Thus you can run a spreadsheet (or linux/windows) off an internet “drive” but you get a speed advantage by having a local copy, and changes / updates happen to both copies. A new PC will run slowly until it has downloaded its local copy. But your data is never lost, and a broken PC can just be tossed out for a new one. The technology to do this is possible today. It can be done via an extra OS plugin, or even via a modified P2P filesharing network.
Another change is the move to wireless technologies. 3G networks are a sample of what will be possible in the future. I can see that many of us will just not bother with a copper wire (for phone and internet) running into our house. We just go wireless.
What does this mean to the PC repair industry? Well, it will eventually die like the industries that repair TVs, VCRs, watches, phones. But what I see is that it will never die out until computers become truly disposable. It could be 5 years, or it could be 50 years.
And with most industries, something else will spring up, which is unreliable and that needs repairing.