The arrival of the Atom processor and platform later this year will probably be viewed as the dawn of what we’re calling tinycomputing, much as the introduction of the IBM PC is commonly regarded as the dawn of the PC era.
For sure, the first Atom-based computers won’t be the first tinycomputers, just as the IBM PC wasn’t really the first PC and Columbus wasn’t the first Old World person to discover the New World.
But, like the IBM PC and Columbus, and unlike the Palm Pilot or Apple II or the Norse, Atom-based tinycomputers will be a world-changing event. It will be a true disruptive technology. Not tomorrow, not next year, but next decade.
Being able to put a PC in your pocket is a big accomplishment, but that’s not enough. Making it easily usable is what needs to be done, and a pocket PC faces some unique challenges.
For a computer to be useful, you must be able to easily tell it what to do and just as easily see the results. An easy task for a desktop, and not much more difficult for a notebook, but in tinycomputing, tininess is the bitter enemy of functionality. The PC has shrunk, but not your eyes or fingers. Yes, you’ll be able to stick a PC in your pocket, but unless you have clown pants, you can’t do the same with a human-sized keyboard or monitor.
These are the biggest obstacles (along with the emergence of cheap universal wireless broadband) to the widespread adoption of tinycomputers.
What can be done?
This recent article details some of the efforts being made to handle these obstacles, mostly from the viewing end. It talks about pico-projectors, which are tiny projectors meant to be built into tinycomputers and capable of projecting a notebook-sized image onto a wall or table.
It also briefly mentions holographic keyboards, another projection-type device which would let you type on a full-sized image of a keyboard. We have air guitarists, next we’ll have some air typists.
No doubt these technologies will find their own niches, but it’s hard to see them going beyond those niches. Projecting a image on a wall is fine provided you have a suitable wall. Imagine yourself in a cubicle, a lecture hall, an airport, or your car. You’re going to have wall issues.
Wall projection is also inherently more public than that of a notebook screen. Your paranoid boss may not want you working on a competitive bid on anyone else’s wall. You yourself might not want to disclose some of your own viewing predilections more publicly, might give a whole new meaning to the term “free porn.”
While no one is going to object to a naked holographic keyboard, and there are rewarding niches for that, too, it’s tough to imagine millions of people banging their fingers against tabletops for hours on end.
So Where Will This Go?
I think the tinycomputing market isn’t going to settle around any one single form factor, but several.
First, anybody doing serious work on the road, lots of typing, lots of looking, is just going to have to keep using notebooks. They may be a bit smaller, probably more than a bit lighter, but pretty much the status quo.
The real market for tinycomputers is going to be in what is now called the “smartphone” area, for those who would like rather than need a computer handy when they’re out. It will be meant for more casual computing while mobile: browsing, IMing, emails, music, video, things like that.
I think they’ll differ from today’s smartphones in the following ways. First, the docking station will make a comeback, both at home and in the office. The office docking station will consist of a “real” keyboard and monitor along with a little I/O box that will let the smartphone act as a corporate desktop.
The home docking station will look much the same, though it will probably hook into a home PC (at least for those into media computing) and automatically sync the base PC with the smartphone.
Voice recognition will finally find a mainstream use. People will just speak rather than type for casual communications. Some kind of microphone will be needed, but that’s already standard for cellphones. Voice recognition won’t be perfect, but given that legal contracts aren’t going to be drawn up this way, and spelling has gone to hell anyway on the Internet, voice recognition errors will become acceptable.
Standard screens will probably remain around iPhonish. They may have a projection feature, but one aimed at the user’s eyes, not a wall (videogoggles aren’t going to cut it). Once electronic paper becomes mature, we’ll probably see foldable displays that will be big enough when extended to let people watch movies and other videos in relative comfort.
How long will this take? We’ll see most of this in place within five years; the job will be complete in ten.
How will this affect the sales of other type of computers? Ten years from now, tinycomputers will dominate the computing market. Sales of notebooks will drop, sales of desktops will plummet. Workstations will remain, some kind of home entertainment computing hub will emerge (absorbing whatever remains of PC gaming after consoles have their full impact), but the typical desktop will retreat into niches. The PC business as we’ve known it will die as a mainstream computing activity.
Welcome to the future.