The PC of 2023 is your smartphone and cloud

The PC of 2023 is your smartphone and cloud

Summary: In 10 years, what we refer to as personal computing will be radically different than what we experience today.


In May 2011, for ZDNet's 20th anniversary, Scott Raymond and I wrote a series of articles that attempted to predict what the personal computer of the year 2019 might look like. We called it Project Blade Runner in homage of Ridley Scott's classic 1982 science fiction thriller, which in itself is considered a major film for inspiring futurists.


(Image: Jason Perlow/ZDNet)

In the almost two years since the publication of those articles, much has changed in the personal computer and mobile technology industry. When I re-read my original piece, it's clear I did not take into account a number of important trends in semiconductor technology, as well as the speed of cloud services adoption.

Let's go over what I feel is a more accurate assessment of what the future of personal computing is likely to look like 10 years from now.

In the original piece, I talked about the concept of a "Hub", or a modular platform for device design, essentially a Lego brick systems architecture.

While I still think this is technically feasible, I believe it is unlikely that we will end up using powerful, expandable systems with large amounts of localized processing and storage in 10 years. Many if not all of the things we think about as "localized" computing resources will be instead distributed into the cloud.

Instead, I see the mobile device as the "Hub" and the center of the end user's computing experience. I also think the issue of expansion and equipment preservation will be completely anachronistic in 10 years' time.

People will own smartphones that have powerful systems on a chip (SoCs), which will be completely disposable.

Additionally, the very idea of system upgrades in 2023 will be completely foreign, because all computing devices will be completely sealed and unrepairable.

I do think the computing experience will be modular, but not in the way Scott and I originally thought. Instead of "Lego bricks", I see smartphones, tablet screens, and keyboard housings sold as a matched component set, much in the same way as stereo and home entertainment systems used to be sold.

I believe it is unlikely that we will end up using powerful, expandable systems with large amounts of localized processing and storage in 10 years. Much if not all of the things we think about as "localized" computing resources will be instead distributed into the cloud.

Earlier this week, I spoke a bit about Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth and his vision of having a complete system of integrated smartphone, attachable tablet touchscreen, and keyboard.

What will make this possible is a concept I am referring to as "Unified Computing", whereby the smartphone, tablet, and desktop operating system becomes the same platform and software development target.

I see a matched set of smartphone "brain", 10-inch to 12-inch tablet touchscreen and keyboard/docking station costing around $500, with an expected system lifetime of two to five years.

Many of these systems will be sold by wireless carriers and will be subsidized with data contracts, so there will be a high incentive to replace them as frequently as possible.

Unified computing will also enable device manufacturers to consolidate their product lineup.

With the exception of Apple, which will undoubtedly continue to make form factor changes at a highly accelerated rate, I see companies like Samsung using technologies like mobile device virtualization to release matched component sets that will run a customer's choice of mobile operating system, whether it be Android, Windows, BlackBerry OS, Ubuntu, or any other system that may come along.

With the exception of the software that runs on the smartphone "brain" component, Samsung, HTC, LG, and any number of companies can refresh a single lineup of matched component sets once a year, and not require 10 different models, all customized for a specific OS platform as they are today.

With this strategy, they can offer all of the platforms, with the same exact matched components.

Need a Samsung Android phablet? Buy the basic 5-inch smartphone "Galaxy Brain" and order it from your carrier with Android pre-loaded. You've decided that you need Windows on it instead? Click on an icon, and the firmware for Windows will be downloaded to it.

Need a 13-inch touchscreen display and keyboard so you can do productivity tasks? Buy the matching display unit and keyboard. Need a cheap 27-inch 4K or 8K monitor to do creative content work? Just buy one, and use the high-speed remote display wireless link capabilities built in to your device. It will just work.

You need wearable computing capabilities? Buy a wireless eyewear or wristband peripheral, which by 2023 will be vendor neutral.

So what happens to all of your personal data and storage when you migrate between matched component systems? Nothing. It lives in the cloud.

Regardless of what device you have, it's always there, and cloud federation services will allow you to mix and match as well as move the data back and forth between cloud storage and service vendors as you need it.

In the original "Blade Runner" article, I talked at length about applications and storage. Much has changed in the way I think about these two concepts since I wrote that piece.

Originally, I thought legacy applications, ie windowed desktop apps designed for the x86 architecture, would be run localized using a specialized processor. While legacy applications will still exist and still be very important in 2023, they will no longer reside on the local machine, which will be ARM based and only run full-screen mobile applications installed from an App Store.

Instead, they will run in the cloud, using desktop as a service (DaaS).

There are a number of reasons why this is likely to happen. First, many ISVs are going to move to a subscription-based model, and will encourage their customers via strong pricing incentives to move their application data to remote versions of these apps running on their desktop clouds, which will run on re-branded hosting provider and public cloud infrastructure by some of the biggest names in the business.

Private cloud versions of these legacy desktop apps will also be an option for those enterprises and institutions that warrant it, and require the strictest form of isolation, away from highly populated multi-tenancy public clouds and with much higher SLAs attached to them.

Once boxed, one-time purchase software goes the way of the dodo — and it will, despite the kicking and screaming that is happening today — these legacy Windows applications will all run remotely but display locally, using technologies such as Microsoft's RDS/DirectAccess/App-V, Citrix's XenApp, and VMware's Horizon.

And, of course, along with the remote apps and the desktops, the vendors providing these services also include integrated data backup, threat and anti-malware monitoring and elimination, routine maintenance and application upgrades, and also quick provisioning and re-provisioning, if required.

Besides Microsoft, Citrix, and VMware, it's also possible that we will see other desktop session protocols emerge in more common usage, such as Red Hat's SPICE, and it would not surprise me at all to see Apple develop its own version of remote desktop in iCloud for use with ARM-based "Macs".

Running remote applications will provide the same level of desktop fidelity and capability with discrete GPUs that exist today, even with the most demanding workloads for content creation. Powerful servers running in the datacenter using virtualized GPU clusters will render complex 2D and 3D workloads remotely and pass the information over the internet to the local ARM device.

None of this is science fiction. There are ISVs that are already doing this, and the technology to accomplish what I have described has been proven and has reached a fundamental level of maturity that will see rapid adoption of subscriber DaaS applications in the next 36 months.

While there may still be a need for certain niche apps to run on localized x86 systems, the classic high-end PC workstation and Macintosh will almost completely disappear.

Will the PC of 2023 be your smartphone, connected peripherals, and your cloud? Talk back and let me know.

Topics: Cloud, Laptops, Smartphones, Tablets, PCs


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Sounds about right

    Canonical is really the first to pioneer this concept so directly. I've always seen them as a patient company with focus on where the next step will be (reminds me of the earlier Apple) that could really grow to massive technological influence when the time is just right. Also, the frequent mention of virtualization in this article points to the growing importance and use of this ability to make things way more operating system agnostic.
    D.J. 43
    • I dunno

      What about the Padfone.... i'm amazed it wasn't mentioned....
      • Still needs Ubuntu

        to become a full desktop. Add a telescoping stand to the Padfone and you have exactly what's in this article.

        The year of Linux is upon us! :-D
        • LOL

          How many years has it been about to be the year of Linux?
          • Year of Linux?

            I think you mean the 'years of Linux', and they have been for a couple now. I cite the awesome, totally awesome, progress Android has made. From , I started at Eclair , to now. In just a couple years time!! Both Microsoft and Apple took 20 to make the same progress. Relative progress, rather. And on another note, that Raspberry pi computer. I have not really looked into it, so I cannot rant on it's behalf. Except for it's existence. That is another awesome device, that will revolutionize, our lives.
            These are, Linux's years.
          • Then what you're refering is that Linux

            was built on the work of Microsoft and Apple.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • built on the work of Microsoft and Apple

            Yes, and Apple built (stole) the work of Xerox and ... and.... Read some history please.
          • Android is what Linux should have been 10-15 years ago.

            Linux has evolved at a slower than glacial pace. Android on phones and tablets was a nearly complete overhaul of all the worst parts of Linux by a company with a reasonable vision of what the "real world" wants. The kernel, which has always been the only decent part of Linux, was left intact. People don't interact with the kernel, so they truly don't care about what kernel is used. Only the less than 1% installed base using desktop Linux cares. Since the kernel survived in Android, they now call it the "years of Linux" and ride on the coattails of Android cheering wildly. After what - decades? Desktop Linux is still a tiny footnote on any chart showing installed base. But, but, but, the kernel survived buried inside another OS! Huzzah!

            Android is decent on phones and tablets, if you don't care about upgrading your OS after your purchase, but full-on Linux has failed for so many years to appeal to anyone not living in a fantasy world in their mom's basement or setting up a dirt cheap web server.

            I believe Android would be even more popular except for one shortcoming. Android has inherited the worst thing about Linux - crippling fragmentation. The worse the fragmentation gets, the more people will eventually abandon it. Regular folks don't want to worry about what OS version and what hardware they're using when they want to run an application. They just want it all to work. That's what kept Linux under 1% for a zillion years.
          • Android upgrades

            I disagree about the upgrades situation.
            I choose Android because there is MORE options for OS upgrades.
            You can use it as is, and there is not much wrong with it if the apps you want to use works fine.
            You can root it and modify it however you like.
            You can install modified roms where others have done the work.
            Last and most difficult but most powerful option of all, if you have the device driver source, you can recompile any kernel and any version of Android for ANY device. Because of this option, there are ports of latest Android versions for devices where the manufacturer never released an update. This is not possible without open source OS.
          • Please...

            ...there are some things you can get a tight grasp on that will allow you to get a good look at reality. Nothing against Linux, I know it isnt for al, but its not so bad, Ive used it and I thought it was not so bad for what it was. But year of Linux? Never has been and unless things change big time never will be.

            Please get a grip on reality.
          • Android is not Linux

            It's was based on Linux, but it's not Linux.
          • Like the Slade farewell concerts...

            @archangel9999 - They'll keep banging on about it till it's which time we will all have moved on to something new.

            @badmikiev - I think that you're being disingenuous about the Apple and Microsoft path to current OS. Android did not take just two years, as that is not taking into account all the development time for Linux before it was ported to the Android base. A fact you quite happily mention with regard to the Apple and Microsoft camps.

            As for Apple, the OS took shape with NextStep, then it was morphed by Apple into OS X and the a branch of it was made into iOS, starting about 8 years ago.

            MS on the other hand took a different route with NT, back in 86' before splitting off from the IBM collaboration in about 90' and building NT. That could be considered the foundation, but not the Windows OS for Phones. The development for that probably started about 5 years ago, with Windows Phone 7.0

            As for the Raspberry pi, clever and cheap though it is, there is no single distribution of Linux for it. Most of the time, those in the know can compile many flavours, further complicating the product for it's intended market and diluting it's effect. The whole premise of it's very existence was all about helping people approach the computer, but so far it is more likely to be taken up by geeks and techies to see what they can do with it. Until someone takes that bull by the horns and directs the efforts to a single source, the problems will continue.
          • The Year of the Linux

            10+ years and counting....
          • don't blink

            But you could be using linux without knowing it.
            Set top boxes, carputers, self checkout at POS, GPS consoles, bike computers, fish finders and of course smart TVs.
            and that's ignoring Android phones and tablets.
            Linux is not just a desktop OS. It bodes well in custom solutions.
  • The cloud is still the question

    Given the lack of universal wireless access (just go into the hills of New England not more than an hour or two from Boston), and the poor track record of clouds on security and reliability, the cloud part is in question.

    The basics of a universal device that adds peripherals to make it everything from a wearable, to a smartphone, to a tablel, to a laptop, and finally to part of a larger workstation is sound. Of course depending on the exact list of devices this proposal has been around for a few decades.
    • clouds are too thin

      I only have to drive 10 minutes to the woods of SW Michigan to be out of the reach of the cell phone towers and cloud. Northern MI is also somewhat thinly covered. Maybe those areas could be served to folks that might have satellite service in the future?

      No, I have been left without any service too many times when only the software actually on my notebook would work, provided I could eventually find a 120 v or 12 v power source.
      •'s not the lack of clouds...

        Just look up into the SKY and see lots of them floating serenely abve your head.
        • Clearly not from inland Country Australia.

          For weeks now we have hardly seen a cloud at all. ;-)
    • Laws of physics limitations

      It is not just the anemic connectivity in many places that will hold back this particular vision of the future. The Achilles' heel of today's compact, portable technology is the battery. The laws of physics and chemistry do not allow for the phenomenal increase in capability, that we have seen in other areas, such as memory and processing power. To cram the desktop processing capabilities of today into a smart phone sized device, runs into the laws of physics. It is a simple fact that it takes energy to shuffle bits around a system. The faster you want to shuffle them, the more energy it takes.

      Since merely holding bits in storage does not take energy once they are stored, it is conceivable that pocket-sized devices can be built, that will store as much information as Amazon presently stores in all of their systems put together. It has been estimated for example that one cupful of DNA, could store all knowledge of humanity from the beginning of civilization through the next several thousand years. It is therefore perfectly possible, without running up against laws of nature, to store unbelievable amounts of information in future memory devices. Such an immense increase in compact data storage capability, would mean a precipitous drop of the amount of data that needs to be constantly shuffled from place to place. Instead of renting a movie from Netflix or downloading Wikipedia, search data, phone sized devices, storing data in a fraction of compactness that DNA is capable of, would hold all those databases and much more. Only update information would have to be sent whenever requested.

      Science and technology, as well as other areas of life, more often than not bring surprises that nobody even dreamed of. In the end, we humans can somewhat project the present into the future, but are singularly bad at accurately predicting what will really happen.
      • The battery?

        I am all for erasing the battery from our toolbox of pieces to build gadgets forever. And replace it with just a moderate sized capacitor. Transferring energy wirelessly is not a 'new' technology. I heard that Tesla invented a device that could deliver power wirelessly to all of America with the energy collected from Niagara Falls. But then he could not pursue it when the power companies learned that you would not be able to, 'put a meter, on it'. With a 'one world' on the horizon, I do not see that 'meter' thing being a problem.
        Sure Tesla is dead. But the idea is the same. Blanket the country with WiFi & energy. An expensive project. But just look at the fruit it will bear.