A future of computing

I’ve spent some time delving into various “future of computing” essays – most dealing with trying to figure out what Jobs is doing and how he’s going to take over the world. (link is only one example.)

I’d like to take a moment to look forward by looking back. And to do that I need to tell you — or perhaps remind you — of where I was.

I graduated from college in 1982. I went to work in a computer store, where my primary job was training people when they bought computers. We mostly sold Vector Graphics. Not too long after I started we also started selling KayPros and Commodore 64s. Oh, and we sold Atari — the 500 at first, its larger cousin later.

When I started, businesses bought dumb terminals. They’d buy a server that held as much as 128K (yes, you read that right) to run several dozen boxes. Some would buy a standalone that had maybe 48K on it. There were a few early adopters that had Apple IIs and Commodore PETs, but mostly you had businesses.

During my year, I saw this change. And the change got driven by one thing: games. When I started, we all said 48K was plenty for a business box, and we were right. I could do almost anything with Write that I can do today with Word 2007 except for WYSIWIG. We all laughed at the power of the C64.

Until we loaded a game and went oooooh at the amazing graphics. And a few marketers got to thinking about what you could do with that extra graphic, and of course programmers thought of neat extras that could take advantage of the extra processing, and, well, we were off to the races.

But here’s the big thing. What drove all the advances, and has for the past 25-30 years, has been “play.” Convenience and security and all the rest of that is a distant second. Well, mostly. There’s another element.

I’ve watched several attempts to take over computing, and they keep going sideways at best. In general this has been for two reasons: Fun and control. People want more fun and they want more control. You can cut back (some) on one if you crank up the other.

Apple’s ipad is extremely convenient. You just can’t have as much fun (games? what games?) and you sacrifice a bit of control.

Apple and google are pushing toward cloud computing. Great, but that means someone else controls my stuff. And if I’m in a spotty connection area (which is a LOT of the US) I can’t play games that require lots of data exchange if that data’s “in the cloud”.

(not a non-sequitor) Cellphones gave more control to grandma. Suddenly she could talk to the kids while somewhere besides home. That was the big deal — we didn’t have to stay at home to get phone calls but could do SOMETHING ELSE. Yes, it was obvious when the cellphones were shoeboxes, but when they got as small as ‘normal’ handsets (or smaller) it was game over.

Apple’s walled garden is not the future. Oh, it’ll be there, but it won’t be the world. Google’s cloud will be part of the future, but not all of it.

No, the next big thing in computing is… probably out there, but not obvious. If you’re going to hunt it, however, look for the things that give and allow MORE fun and MORE control for grandma and teen. Not the techie, not the businessman, but the general public.

Fun and self-control — MY choices, when I want them. Those are the two things that will drive the future of computing.


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