2025 is a little over a decade away, and while I firmly believe that we will still be using PCs in ten years, they will be radically different to the PCs that we are using today.
The PC industry is in trouble. While people are still using PCs more than ever, they're not buying as many new PC as they once did, and are instead choosing to make their existing hardware last longer so they can spend their money of shiny gizmos such as smartphones and tablets. This is causing grief for PC makers, but I believe that this precipitous fall in sales will force the PC to evolve into a new device – the hybrid post-PC PC.
The problem as I see it isn't that people haven't fallen out of love with the PC, but instead they've fallen out of love with the PC form factor. While most users haven't figured it out yet, the fragmentation – of data, user interface, and user experience – that shifting out attention between desktops, notebooks, tablets, and the ubiquitous smartphone has caused is the primary reason why people are turning their back on the PC.
The PC is a device that comes with decades of legacy attached, ranging from the way it looks and works, to the way that we interact with it. And while OEMs have shown themselves to be willing to make small tweaks to the PC form factor – think ultrathin systems and convertibles – but much more work is needed.
The fundamental difference between the PC – both desktop and notebook – and post-PC devices ultimately comes down to how people interact with them. At the heart of a PC are a physical keyboard, a largish screen, and a pointing device, while post-PCs devices have a software keyboard, smaller screen, and your finger is normally the pointing device. What I believe will happen over the next few years is that post-PC devices will evolve to become the brains for the next generation of PCs.
Silicon technology has already moved on to the point where we no longer need a huge box on our desks to power a PC – although some OEMs till like to cling to this idea – and the guts of even quite high-end systems can be built around the display. Given that performance is increasing and component size is decreasing, it makes sense to take this one step further and make the brains of the PC – the CPU, GPU, RAM and so on – small enough to carry around with us.
Imagine sitting down at your desk and your keyboard, mouse, and display connecting automatically to the smartphone in your pocket or tablet in your bag – or perhaps connecting to both simultaneously. Wireless and battery technology ten years from now will be able to offer the wireless bandwidth and power needed to pull this off without needing a kludge of wires to connect everything up.
The only cabling would be for power for the screens and peripherals, and wireless charging would keep even that clutter down to a minimum.
Also, for those times when you are away from your desk, you'll be able to connect your portable device to TVs, both to be able to work or just to display content.
Our PC – along with our data – will be with us all the time, not on a desk in the office or at home.
Storage will be made up of a combination of the flash memory built into the smartphone or tablet, external storage wireless devices, and cloud storage. All of the storage will be seamlessly accessible to the user, with the line between local and cloud storage, as well as different storage devices, being a thing of the past. The PC thrived during a time when people were device-focused, but the shift to post-PC has made us more data-focused, which is where the real value is.
I see notebook systems also well on the road to extinction by 2025, with them being replaced by convertible devices that can switch from a tablet into a notebook. The model for this is already here in various forms, and millions of tablet users have already kitted out their devices with keyboards to take on the role of notebooks. The keyboard on the 2025 version may have double duties and be used as the desktop input device too.
Where does all this leave operating systems? I think that the distinction between a desktop operating system and one designed for mobile will evaporate, and instead we will have a single unified platform that will adapt to the configuration it is being used in.
Needing different operating systems for different devices is an example of legacy thinking in action, and as the power and performance of smartphones and tablets continue to increase, this will become unnecessary.
When in 2025 we look back at the desktop and mobile operating systems of today, the notion of having a separate platforms on devices that do essentially the same thing will seem as odd and archaic as needing both DOS and Windows on a PC seems to us today.
But not only will we get to enjoy the benefits of dumping the distinction between PC and mobile devices, we will also benefit from improved security and reliability thanks to having been freed from decades of legacy code. Too much of our computing world revolves around the Win32 API, and it increasingly being shown to be unsuited to the tech world we live in today.
What I don't see changing much over the coming decade are input devices. As cool as Minority Report hand-waving or Iron Man voice control looks in the movies, neither come close to the efficiency of the keyboard and mouse, and they have fatal ergonomic and privacy issues making them non-starters. I have no doubt that voice recognition in 2025 will have improved beyond our wildest dreams, and that it will be offered as a secondary input system, I can't see it replacing out hands.
I'm certain that desktop PC and notebooks will still exist in 2025 – it's quite possible that some systems in use today will still be going in a decade much in the same way that some people are still running PCs from the early 2000s with Windows XP on them – but they will be niche.
Don't think things can change this much in a decade? Consider that the iPhone appeared on the scene less than seven years ago, while the iPad isn't even four years old yet, but think of the monumental impact that these devices have had on the consumer electronics ecosystem. A decade is a long time, and more than enough time for the PC as we know it today to be transformed into a hybrid, modular system that's based around post-PC devices.
I don't see the evolution I've outlined above as a matter of "if" but of "when." I've picked 2025 as a nice round date, but I firmly believe that given the direction technology is headed, and the way that things are coalescing right now that we might have much of this in place far sooner than that.
We could have the post-PC PC of 2025 as early as 2020.