Event Horizon

LaptopWith world-beating innovation arriving faster every year, it’s easy to focus on the near term, but what will our computers look like in 10, 50 and 100 years? Drew Turney investigates the future of hardware.

Many have tried to predict the future and failed, even some of our most renowned technology minds. US Commissioner of patents Charles Duell famously claimed in 1899 everything that can be invented already had been. In the 1950s IBM chairman Thomas J Watson is reputed to have said there was a world market for ‘maybe five computers’. In the late 1990s Howard Rheingold thought virtual reality would be the ubiquitous interface of the future, now it’s an anachronistic gameplay concept as old and daggy as Windows 2000.

Some get it right. William Gibson’s 1984 classic Neuromancer introduced the concept of ‘a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions’, considered to be pop culture’s first reference to the World Wide Web, which it also preceded by ten years. Douglas Adams pre-empted the existence of portable devices carrying vast amounts of data by publishing The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy in 1979, beating the Apple Newton – the world’s first PDA – into the world by 13 years.

We’re constantly reminded that the future is now. Often it’s by ritzy PR firms desperate to get some press attention away from the iPhone, but the future stays resolutely out there where it always has, promising even better and flashier things. What in fact never changes is that technology is simply the construct, waiting for us to overlay our nature upon it.

From one point of view, it can be said the computer itself will never change. Whether it’s the 1800 square foot ENIAC – the world’s first digital computer that was switched on in July 1947 – or a nano-particle we’ll one day inject into our cerebellum, there are certain constants.

Just like the car has had an engine, brakes and gears since the early 20th century, a computer still comprises a disk to hold data, RAM to store the data being processed and a processor to make the calculations.

We’ve since adopted air conditioning, stereos and cruise control in cars, and the parts of a computer have likewise evolved rather than changed. We’ve gone from magnetic tape drives to integrated circuits, CRT monitors to LCD and LED displays and beige to black, clear or even pink. But there’ll always be a piece of silicon processing information.

What will change – the groundwork for which we’ve already seen – is where and how those components work. Another current trend is for them to all move online. It started with free web hosting back in the day, now Google Apps and Gmail lets users store gigabytes of files and email on their servers. Will we soon live in a future of thin client-style dumb terminals, data storage distributed across enormous server farms instead of sitting on billions of comparatively tiny (and mostly empty) standalone hard disks across the world?

Now online storage is robust and mature, can online processing be far off? Instead of your request to send an email or update the shopping list in Excel going through a processor in your PC, why not send it over the Internet to a massive bank of supercomputers that can process it (and trillions like it) every second – particularly if all the data’s already online to begin with?

SETI@Home is way ahead of you. Since the late 90s the small application has been receiving data from radio telescopes, crunching it look for little green men and reporting the findings back to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Instead of buying an enormous and expensive machine to process their own data, SETI created one of the world’s first distributed processing systems. With so many net surfers tapping into the novelty of what they were doing, SETI turned PCs the world over into one single virtual processor.

But even if your data, processor and programs aren’t flung to the four winds, it’s unlikely you’ll have a host of computers all doing different things – one to play to your music and movies, another for the kids to do their homework, etc. The infrastructure for every PC in the home to merge is here and the wired home concept isn’t far away from the mass market. If you buy a house some time in the next decade it might come with a small, airtight cool room in the roof cavity which houses your server, wireless interfaces in every room accessing everything from the web to your digital photo album, your household budget, movies on demand and the home security.

The More Things Change…

There’s just one chink in the armour of the perfectly realised computing universe where everything digital is distributed and served across a super-network, and that’s us. It appears the defenders who laugh off the demise of print are onto something. If you pay money for a device or tool – especially something as expensive as a computer – not having something in your hands to show for it just doesn’t feel right.

We’re seduced by the new and unusual, but we more often go back to the old ways. There’s a reason we still have the desktop PC (40 year old technology) the car (100 year old technology) and farming (now 5,000 years old) – they work and we like them.

People, cultures and societies don’t change as fast as technology vendors would have us believe. In a century we’ll still want to conduct financial transactions, commit crimes, have extramarital affairs and everything else we do with computers today. And as long as the computer allows it all in what sociologists call a ‘compelling experience’ we’ll still want a machine on our desk, even if it’s just a box connected to the Internet serving our data.

In fact with all the new and cool gadgets that flood the world, the only meaningful way we’ve changed our computing experience as a species is move away from the desktop to the notebook, sales of the latter overtaking the former only in the last couple of years.

At this point it’s also worth mentioning the commercial imperative that drives almost everything in our world. Strange though it would have seemed to our egalitarian hunter-gatherer ancestors, very little gets done in human endeavour in the capitalist age unless there’s money in it. When there is and a market is created, human achievement moves forward not because of technology but because of the relative profit of production. That’s why DVD players have plunged from $1,200 to as low as $30 in the last decade and there’s no line around the block for Richard Branson’s commercial spaceflight at $250,000 a ticket.

The Future of Sages Past

So how do we predict what PCs of the future will look like, how they’ll behave, how they’ll work? If you want to make a prediction, history may remember you as a philistine or idiot. But if the PC of 100 years hence it still a machine that processes information, it might be more recognisable than we think.

We might be unshackled from the wall-mounted power point, although with current standard battery technology giving little more than 2-3 hours of laptop power, we’ll never be truly mobile until we tap an alternative. Living cells are bursting with energy; how about dangling two diodes into a glass of water for unlimited laptop power, or plugging them into two ports on your forearm?

Will touchy and expensive metal hard discs be replaced by throwaway DVD technology as the etching lasers get more precise? More intriguing – and the dream of science fiction writers throughout the 20th century – will we interface with computers totally by voice, by walking through a VR simulation or by dealing with an artificially intelligent agent?

And let’s not forget the biggest driver of change in technology, you and I – what we like, and what we buy because we like it. As vendors from mobile to car manufacturers well know, we choose our devices primarily on their looks. In the mid 1990s, computers were easily recognisable even to people who didn’t use them – they were square, plastic and beige.

One struggling vendor bought back their high profile CEO, put a lower case ‘i’ in front of a product and changed our relationship with technology forever. Although other vendors such as Nokia have jumped on the design bandwagon and made themselves obscenely rich in doing so, Apple is generally credited with making technology human.

The 1998 iMac and 2001 iPod kicked off twin revolutions by transforming technology into objects d’art – devices we wanted to hold and play with, machinery that expressed who we were, tools that we loved. Just think of the Vertu mobile range phone, devices that cost up to $10,000 but by all accounts do little more than a device you can get on a $30 a month plan.

Partly because technology vendors are trying to cut themselves a slice of the dazzling iPod pie, we’ve seen an explosion in computer design over the last 10 years, and that as much as any other factor is going to influence what computers will look like in the next 10, 50 and 100 years.

And despite a history of laughable predictions and the cultural landscape changing at an ever-increasing pace, PC makers are toiling away in secret laboratories designing the computer you’ll buy in years to come. Read on to see some of the devices emerging from secret bunkers as we speak…

Nokia Morph

A joint project between the Finnish phone giant and the UK’s Cambridge Nanoscience Centre, the Morph is a concept applicable to many small devices from phones to watches and MP3 players. It’s a nanotechnology-driven material whose flexibility Nokia claims will blend more with the way we live instead of being in a square, heavy we merely carry.

Lenovo W700ds

A little closer to reality – in fact already on the market – is Lenovo’s contribution to better colour and freeing us from the single screen constraints of the notebook world, two welcome features in the art and design industry. There’s an inbuilt colour calibrator to make sure your colour stays consistent throughout your workflow whether you’re in print design or film production, but it’s the supplemental screen that slides out from behind the main display that’s so eye catching and futuristic-looking.

HTC Dream

HTC have been making a splash over the past few years with some great products, giving local champs like Nokia and Blackberry a run for their money. Now it’s the first one in Australia with Google’s Android mobile operating system. The device itself doesn’t look like something Captain Kirk would carry around, but it represents the future when the line between hardware and software will blur. The Dream was built to integrate with Android functionality, and just like Sun CEO John Gage once said ‘the network is the computer’. Machines will get smarter until one day the tool will be the software and vice versa.

XOXO Laptop

A result of a US one-laptop-per-child program, the OLPC XOXO is American design firm fuseproject’s totally keyless laptop. It opens like a laptop PC with the join horizontally, vertically like a book or lays flat like a board, and with no keys, buttons or speaker holes there’s an uninterrupted finish onto which the software can become the device.

Canvas Laptop

A project by concept designer Kyle Cherry, the Canvas Laptop is designed to be used the way designers and creatives think – in PC form, tablet form, or on paper. The body is made of aluminium, giving it durability without the extra weight, and the interfaces of toolbars etc, are kept to the sides, leaving the entire work area blank.

Baton Laptop

The brainchild of Australian concept designer Tai Chiem, the baton PC consists of a tubular body from which two flexible films are unrolled. An electric charge is sent through each film to make them rigid and a monitor and keyboard image are emitted, ready for use. Or just leave it in the docking station and connect it to a regular keyboard and monitor.

HP Mat

The expression of a long gestating dream in the minds of technology vendors – to get monitor images on a flexible, foldable, lightweight surface that’s always on and ready to connect to a wireless network.

HP Coffee Table

Just load your thin client machine into the dock and it not only charges your device but displays a larger view of your system on the tabletop. Perfect for collaborative meetings, but spilling your coffee could be an expensive mistake.

The Humble Mobile

No, the mobile phone isn’t new, but if you’ve bought one in the last year there’s a good bet it has enough storage for a small collection of music, contacts and games. SD memory cards only expand their capacity, and according to Moore’s Law they’ll be as powerful as desktop PCs are now in just a couple of years. Isn’t it possible we’ll carry everything around on our small mobile device, ready to plug into an external keyboard and monitor (or project virtual ones) when it’s time to work or play?