The death of the PC has been exaggerated: Get ready for the era of ubiquitous computing

The death of the PC has been exaggerated: Get ready for the era of ubiquitous computing

Summary: It’s not Post-PC, it’s not PC+. Tomorrow is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.


Welcome to the future. Tomorrow is already here, it's just not evenly distributed (as William Gibson would say). It's a future that's in the middle of being born, one where natural user interfaces, machine learning, high-bandwidth wireless connectivity, and the cloud, are changing everything we know about computing. It's also a future that's been a long, long time coming. More than 20 years, in fact.

Let's roll the clock back to the early 1990s, when I was working in the advanced local loop group of a major telecoms research lab. While my job was to try to understand what the future of the last mile of copper between switch and home would be, I realised quite quickly that that future was going to be driven by the endpoints of the network.

As they became more complex, they'd demand more and more bandwidth — and oddly less and less human interaction. Computers would talk to computers, and we'd take advantage of that endless chatter to build systems that would make the complex seem easy.

That's the world we're starting to see, where the things around us are becoming connected, delivering data and communicating with each other. It's a world where we can tap into cloud-hosted computing on our omnipresent pocket computing devices, anywhere and at any time. It's a very different world from the early days of computing when we had to go to a specific place to book a specific time to take a share of the limited computation that was available. Now computing is, well, ubiquitous.

Internet All The Things!

Back in those heady days of the early 90s, one research scientist at Xerox PARC, Marc Weiser, was charting out the world we live in, building experimental systems that have become the inspirations for much of today's computational infrastructure. Weiser called it "ubiquitous computing", and he discussed it in detail in an influential article for Scientific American in 1991, "The Computer for the 21st Century".

He foresaw a world where what mattered was the user, and their data, not the computing equipment they used – and where it was "one user, many computers", where computing was like writing. It was a world where different classes of computing device would share information seamlessly, letting computation flow from device to device, and from user experience to user experience. We're well into the second decade of the 21st century now, and from where I'm standing it looks like we're heading right into the world he thought we’d be building. Sadly though, he's not here to see it; he died in 1999.

I found that paper while I was working at that telcoms lab, and like Ted Nelson's hypertext rant Dream Machines, it became part of the work I was doing – helping me understand that the local loop was about much more than just voice, and that data was more than (in those days) email, Usenet and FTP. At the heart of where Dream Machines and ubiquitous computing met was the fledgling web, and the protocols that defined an interconnected and (as Nelson would put it) deeply intertwingled world.

That last point was particularly important, and one that's key to understanding the ubiquitous computing revolution that's happening around us. Weiser focused on three classes of device (though in practice there would be many, many more). He called them Tabs, Pads and Walls.

Tabs would be tiny devices, often without displays. They'd be sensors and effectors, the "things" in today’s Internet of Things. They’re the grains of compute that are spread across the world to gather a picture of what's going on, and just where it's happening. Think of a tab as a device like an Arduino, just with built-in connectivity. As well as acting as sensors for the wider network, tabs could form the basis of low-cost, simple wearable computing systems. Andy Hopper at Olivetti's European research center in Cambridge implemented them as smart, interactive active badges that made it possible to route calls to the nearest phone, as well as controlling access to rooms.

Pads were a very different concept, similar to today's tablet computers, but vastly more flexible. Intended to be the main way users would interact with compute capabilities, they'd mix their own processing with local and, what we’d now call, cloud resources. While much of Weiser's work addressed scenarios that were similar to those anticipated by Alan Kay's proto-tablet Dynabook, tabs are more than slates — encompassing everything from smartphone-like devices to desktop PCs. Pads would be the main route of user interaction with a ubiquitous computing environment, offrering different user interfaces depending on the context of the user.

Walls are something different, offering large multi-user interactive surfaces that could be used for display and for collaboration. They could be horizontal or vertical, screens or projected — just as long as they were interactive. You could think of a wall as something like a 55-inch Perceptive Pixel display, or one of Microsoft's original table-top Surfaces – or even an Xbox One hooked up to a large-screen TV, using Kinect for user interactions.

Put together the components of Wesier’s ubiquitous computing future looked very like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wearable communications devices were a gateway to the ship's computers, which displayed information and took inputs from flexible tablet-like devices, using massive wall screens and projections for additional many-to-many work. Under the covers of flexible, task appropriate user interfaces, the real work was done by massive shared computational systems.

Of course Weiser wasn't alone in thinking about ubiquitous computing (or ubicomp). IBM's research teams were discussing something similar, calling it "pervasive computing". A few years later, working in the mobile group of one of the first web consultancies, we suggested calling the background chatter of the any-to-any world of meshed smart devices and the sensor networks they'd build "ambient computing", taking a cue from Brian Eno’s musical philosophy.

It's not surprising to see that fictional future and the ubiquitous computing world it describes reflected in the three largest computing ecosystems. Google's Chromebook and Android are its Tabs and Pads, while the Chrome browser scales to the largest Walls. In the cloud App Engine and Google Apps power user experiences across all those devices. Similarly, Microsoft's Devices and Services model of "three screens and a cloud" puts Azure behind Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox, while Apple's iCloud backends both iOS and Mac OS, and many of the applications that run on its devices.

You can call this world we're building post-PC, but that’s an exclusionary term that removes one element of the way we're smearing compute from things to pocket to desktop to machine room to cloud. In a ubiquitous computing world we're not getting rid of things — we're adding compute to much more. That may mean we use traditional computing devices less; after all, who still uses a teletype? But it doesn't mean that they go away.

Instead, it means that we'll access that computation in different ways: tapping on a small screen, swiping on a larger touch surface, typing on a keyboard, talking to a TV. When you look back at Weiser's work, it's no wonder that Microsoft called its family of tablets Surface, or that Apple chose to call its iPad. Those are all terms that harken back to that Scientific American paper, and to the new computing world they're building. Microsoft's vision used to be a computer on every desk, now we're looking at computers everywhere.

Welcome, then, to the ubiquitous computing future. You're already part of it. Now, let's see what we can do with it.

Topics: Cloud, Emerging Tech, Tablets

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • um hooray?

    There are still 5 billion people on Earth without internet access, and you're telling me that today is the future?
    • Not everybody needs to partake in what the future brings,

      in order for the future to happen.

      There are billions of people who still go to bed hungry in this modern world where there actually is enough food to feed everybody. The question that is most important to ask is, why.
  • "The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

    Read it again!
    "it’s just not evenly distributed yet."
    • When the "yet" arrives, everybody in the world will have an

      equal distribution of poverty.
  • To prove the PC is dead, we need a stat we haven't seen yet

    How many people have COMPLETELY replaced their PC with low functionality tablets like the ipad?

    Note that we have heard about how some percentage of things that used to be done on PCs can now be done on dumb tablets (like the ipad). If 100% of people can use their tablets to replace 50% of their PC tasks, 100% of people STILL need a PC. In this case, post PC is a lie.

    If 50% of people can replace 100% of their PC tasks with a dumb tablet, PCs are in trouble.

    I've seen no evidence that a significant number of people can fully replace their PCs with dumb tablets. So far, Post PC is a lie. James Kendrick and Matt Baxter-Reynolds are 2 of the biggest lovers of how the ipad has killed the PC yet both have to admit they can't get rid of their PCs. Their actions do not support their words.

    The problem with all of this is the innovative Windows 8 computing devices like the Surface Pro. Is it a PC? Of course it is. It can do everything any Core i5 PC can do. Is it a tablet? Of course it is. It can do everything a dumb tablet can do. So is the Surface Pro a PC? A Post PC device? A PC Plus device?

    The other question is: can apple add more functionality to the dumb ipad before people start to discover Windows 8 tablets and ask themselves why they need 2 apple devices to do what they can perfectly do with 1 Microsoft powered device? apple needs to hope and pray that people remain ignorant of how expensive (both dollar wise and practicality wise) it is to remain in the apple ecosystem.
    • Come on Toddy

      Was there really a need to go on a rant about Apple? But okay let's instead look at a device that is even more expensive than the iPad - which is ironic as I recall you being one of the ones who kept saying the iPad was too expensive and that it would never replace a laptop... which was not the goal to begin with.
      • Wasn't an apple rant at all

        Not sure why you thought it was. I use the term "dumb tablet" to differentiate it from tablets based on Windows 8 that are far smarter, in the same way dumb phones are different from smartphones. Would you prefer I use the term "feature tablet" to refer to the ipad?

        I don't remember saying that ipads were too expensive. I did buy one. But speaking of price, if you need an ipad and an mba (cheapest apple laptop) you are spending $1,500. Surface Pro is 2/3 the price and far more portable. If you only need a dumb tablet (sorry, feature tablet) then the Surface Pro is overkill, just like the iphone is overkill for someone who only needs a dumb phone.
        • Ranting

          Actually, yes, it was an anti-Apple rant. You only mentioned them and dumb tablets repeatedly.

          We get it, you don't like Apple.
          • Dumb tablets is an anti apple rant?

            Would calling the LG Revere a dumbphone be considered an anti LG rant?

            Compared to Windows 8 tablets, the ipad is a dumb tablet. That doesn't make it bad, just like I'm sure the LG Revere isn't bad to someone who doesn't need more functionality.

            And yes, if you need both an ipad and a PC, you DO need more functionality than the ipad can provide. Not a rant, just the truth that is relevant to the topic at hand.
          • How old is your PC?

            Many people who play console gaming systems and only use the internet for Social media use their phone and tablets now adays. But you need to realize that the PC creates the apps for the "dumb tablet". Because a tablet is a DEVICE and not a PC. You cannot code, compile, upload, download on an iPad the way you would with a PC. You cannot host a website from your tablet for your business. Android, iOS is designed for users to receive data from networks based on the applications provided. Cononical on the other hand is making a PC/phone. One where you can use it as a phone running Ubuntu AND Android. In addition to a phone, you can connect the phone to a monitor and keyboard and the interface changes to a full desktop GUI interface running a version of Ubuntu that developers use to create applications etc.

            Windows is the first mainstream Software company to put a full OS on a table with their Surface. I agree with Todd on that, but what happened to putting Windows on a Smart phone? Oh, wait... why can I not install any OS on a tablet or phone yet? I can configure my own servers, PCs, but when it comes to phones and tablets, they are locked with what you're given. Hence theses things are devices and not PCs.
          • He was ranting

            but I thought it was pretty obvious he wasn't targeting Apple specifically this time. If todd had said "How many people have COMPLETELY replaced their PC with low functionality tablets like the ?" would you all still be attacking him?
          • Stupid lack of edit button

            There should be (Insert name of Android tablet) before that first question mark
          • totally agree with you

            It's strange the way he goes on and on about ipad. The article did not even praise ipad other than one line and even ms surface was mentioned !! And why was Android never even got mentioned which has the biggest market share ?
      • No rant about Apple, the company

        It's about apple, the fruit.
  • The Post-PC fallacy

    The term "post-PC" is an official corporate propaganda soundbyte coined by Apple, first cited in public by Steve Jobs and promoted by Apple's legions of embedded reporters and small but disproportionately vocal fan communities.

    This article makes a refreshing and insightful change.
    Tim Acheson
    • Tinfoil?

      You do realize, don't you, that tin, being a metal, would actually conduct the waves, thereby making it more likely that the satellites owned by Apple/the government/the lizard people/Major League Baseball will steal your thoughts, right?
      Third of Five
      • Stop wasting tin.

        It's expensive, and high in demand.

        Here, have some aluminium instead.
      • Witness the quality of pro-Apple comments

        A classic comment from an Apple fan/apologist online.
        Tim Acheson
        • Try again

          I'm not an Apple apologist. I actually use Windows 7 both at work and home. I don't really care that much about platforms, but the way that Microsoft fanboys will defend the dominant player in the market strikes me a bit odd.

          They seem to believe that Microsoft is some put-upon oppressed organization, when it has been found to be in violation of antitrust laws around the world; to most people, it might occur that maybe, just maybe, Microsoft might have done something wrong at some point. And yet these fanboys defend the hive relentlessly, and attack anyone who stops clapping as some kind of minion of Apple or Google.

          tl;dr get over yourself.
          Third of Five
          • We all know what MS has done; not the complaint at all.

            Its the double standard far too often allowed for by the ABMS crowd.

            Microsoft fanboys????

            Nothing compared to the fanboys in the other camps.

            Admittedly, when the MS fanboys sound like idiots, they too indded do sound like idiots.

            But when someone comes onto ZDNet and says "the way that Microsoft fanboys will defend the dominant player in the market strikes me a bit odd" is itself odd, given that the obvious observation I noticed almost immediately and until this day around here is the absolute vigor and sometimes unbelievable over zealous passion that some around here absolutely spread hate about Microsoft.

            Sure, MS has its ludicrous fanboys, but honestly, if one has been around ZDNet a few years its evident that much of the MS fanboy nonsense comes by way of response to a vigorous hatred of MS that all to frequently brings out comments that are terrible illogical, poorly thought out, plain simple hatred, purposely misleading and sometimes provable outright lies, all meant to show MS as some kind of monster.

            Personally, Im for the live and let live approach. Ive used Linux for a period and feel its a great solution for many. I own a couple Apple products I think are wonderful products, but I cannot get onboard with their concept of personal computing by way of Mac.

            I think everyone has a right to state a sane opinion, but state opinion as opinion when its opinion, not as if its a fact. When for example I personally know of several people who now use Windows 8 and think its perfectly good as an OS and I read some post here where someone explains in fine detail why they think Windows 8 is great, it serves no purpose for someone to just hop on the posting board and post right below them that "everyone hates Windows 8" like its some kind of accepted fact.

            So whats really odd is the fact you don't seem to get why supporters of Windows and MS generally do stick up for MS and Windows even though its problems are very well documented.