Every year computers ease deeper into our everyday lives. Traffic lights and water pitchers pack tiny processors to form an entire internet of things. Moore’s Law continues to forge more portable power as computers have migrated from our offices to our homes to our pockets. As companies plan what’s next, some look to tablets like Apple’s iPad or Microsoft’s Surface Pro as the heir apparent. Pay no mind. The future of personal computing is not about subtracting ounces from a device. It’s about dividing objects by identity.
The future of personal computing is personalized computing.
“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular…PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people.”
-Steve Jobs, 2010
That metaphor continues to unfold. Carmakers will soon see their core business model swing from private car ownership to subscription access to a suite of transportation options. Technologies like Tesla’s Self-Driving capability and Uber’s tiered ride sharing platform are accelerating this transition from private transportation to personalized transport. A similar shift will occur as people migrate from owning personal computers to accessing personalized computing experiences. The change is afoot.
Network speed, hardware availability, storage size, and security the key levers.
Desktops, laptops, and tablets will become more ubiquitous. Offices, cafes, libraries, airports, malls, and cities will continue to put computers in front of us to work, buy, and navigate the world around us. Increased access to capable computing will reduce the need for us to supplement our phones with additional devices.
The world will soon be blanketed in reliable, high-speed internet. This will allow all internet devices to remain perpetually online. With always-on Gigabit internet, data packets can criss-cross the globe almost instantly. Near-field networking protocols are also becoming faster and more reliable with every iteration.
The NAND flash memory found in most high-end devices stores more and more data into a smaller and smaller footprint. Apple Watch, for example, has an 8GB chip. It won’t be long before it can hold 128GB.
Biometric security + robust encryption will attempt to make transferring information safer. Be it a fingerprint, retina, or DNA, the addition of biometric verification will allow us to securely send data to devices near and far.
Condense these advancements into the most efficient package and you will see a tablet is not ideal. A watch is. It is more affordable, packs the networking, local storage, and a biometric sensor in a format that leaves both hands free. Imagine a watch with enough storage for your computer settings and passwords. Approach any computer while wearing your watch, verify that you’d like to use it, and boom, your personal computer is unlocked. Your settings, cloud based files, media, and services are ready. Network drives have been available for decades. Most major research universities provide each student with login credentials that summon a personal profile and documents onto any campus computer. Multiply that by 1,000,000. Log into any computer, public or private, and you can temporarily transfer your personal computing assets in the time it takes a modern Mac to boot. As you work, all files and changes are saved back to your watch. Log out and leave no trace.
Your computer goes where you go.
There’s a larger economic trend playing out today. The shared economy is partially a rejection of the value of private ownership. The Netflix and chill generation has sent shockwaves across business. See Spotify & Hulu (Entertainment), Harry’s & Quip (Personal Care), Office 365 & Adobe Creative Cloud (Productivity), Zipcar & Lyft (Transportation). Still, even with Uber only a few taps away, many New Yorkers still own their own cars. Likewise, some people will continue to own private computers. However as our watches and phones become more powerful, large-screen, high-powered computing will become a service not a product.
A portable device with local storage, high speed networking, and biometric security that can safely store and disperse all of our data means you never have to fill out another form, carry a metro pass, or worry about cancelling a credit card. With a flick of that wrist, you can provide your health history and identification. Double tap your steering wheel and transfer your license and registration without a word. Dab an ATM to remove cash without typing a pin. All of your data is hardware encrypted to your unique device and verified by your biometric signature. Any outward facing information is just an alias. Your driver’s license, debit card, insurance, gym membership, health records, Netflix subscription, addresses, metro passes, all stored securely and backed up to the cloud. But, not the cloud we’re used to.
The barrier to the next stage of personal computing is not technology. The barrier is trust. When personal information is sold or hackers compromise Visa, Google, or world governments, the public loses faith in digital systems to manage personal information. For the next stage of personal computing to take shape, we need a system that engenders trust. For some that could mean bringing all of their data onto their personal device. But, what happens when that device is damaged or destroyed? Enter Blockchain. Instead of using a series of passwords (account numbers, pins, and liscenses are essentially passcodes) on remote servers entrusted to sometimes unreliable agents who verify each transaction, data is stored in encoded cryptographic “blocks” that live across a network of publicly verified ledgers. Any attempt to interact with these blocks requires device-level two-factor authentication and digital signatures. So, Bank of America does not store your data on a private server where it is in danger of manipulation, fraud, or human error. There are not passwords to keep up with because your fingerprint matched to your physical device is the only password you need.
With every major change, computing has stepped closer to the individual. We can easily forecast a future where computers will exist as chips implanted into the human body. When you consider that, a tablet appears much closer to a desktop than any future computing shift. In fact, the largest clue that tablets are a red herring for the future of personal computing is how ardently tablet makers have worked to make them more like their predecessors. Due to the assymetric maturity of the key technologies (blockchain, ubiquitous high speed networking, storage miniaturization, biometric security, hardware availability), the complete solution will also bypass handhelds altogether. So the next time Tim Cook proclaims that the future of personal computing is the iPad…
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