On the Future of Computers

The computer as we know it is going away. Soon. There will still be die-hards, writers who need a fast typewriter and assorted dinosaurs around, but no one else will use a computer. It's just too difficult. No matter how easy manufacturers make it, you still need a degree in computer science to keep the darn things running. You worry about viruses, spyware, root kits (how many users actually know what a root kit is?) and other assorted malware. Then you worry that your hard drive will crash and you'll lose all your valuable data. Do you know if your Documents file is being backed up every day to your USB drive? What about your other data? Quicken and Quick Books tend to store information deeply nested in the Program Files folder. Have I found the right file and is it being backed up? Are your security patches all up-to-date? Which of those emails are spam and which contain viruses? Should I click on any of them?

And then there's the convenience. Desktop computers are easy to see things on and to manipulate, but aren't too mobile. Laptop computers are an awful compromise. The screens are too small, ditto the keyboards, the touchpads only move the mouse when stroked accidentally and after carrying them around for a couple of hours, you pray that someone will steal it. Standard wi-fi requires that you find a hot spot -- never around when you need one -- or carry a phone card to turn your laptop into the world's largest cell phone.

Cell phones are closer to the mark. They are quite portable and they will connect to the Internet from anywhere without needing extra plug-ins. Keyboards are another matter. Cell phone keyboards are unusable by anyone over 21. I think it's a law. Sticks and fingers are passable substitutes for mice. If I could only read the screen.

Most countries and states in the US require hands-free cell phone usage while driving cars. There is a primitive command structure built into the typical blue-tooth device, "Call Mary, mobile one." To which the phone will query (if you are lucky), "Did you say, call Mary mobile one?" Once affirmed, the phone dutifully makes the call.

It's an exceedingly short step to, "Phone, look up Mary's address and send her the following letter . . ." Of course, we'll all have to give our cell phones names, but you get the idea. The only things needed to make this work are decent voice recognition, an online office suite and secure online disk storage. Well, guess what? They all exist.

All that's missing is electronic glue. Programs like Dragon Naturally Speaking have been around for years, but have come up a bit short. You need a fast computer and they have to be trained to your voice. The major issue is that the current generation of computers aren't fast enough to slice the sampling rate into small enough increments to do an adequate job of parsing human speech. But it's fairly simple to speak into the phone, transmit your voice to a large server and let the server do the heavy lifting. The same server would have an office suite built in for you to command and could also do document storage. Some might print documents for you and mail them. Others might print to your local Kinkos or similar. Some might have an Internet capable printer in their homes or offices. Most will have Internet capable TV's, so they can view pictures, read articles that are too technical to listen to over the phone, chat with people you can see and lots of other uses. No need for a remote. Just use voice commands on your phone.

Think it won't happen? Microsoft, Google, Apple and a dozen other giants think it will. And they are betting big money on it. Most of them have online office suites already, most offer online data storage and all are working on alliances with cell phone companies. Take a look at Microsoft's Live Mesh Beta or Google Docs. The iPhone is more computer than phone already and the next generation promises to be even more computerish.

Further out in time, expect to have heads up displays from our phone/computer as well as an on-demand keyboard. A prototype keyboard is already available. It projects a picture of a full-sized keyboard on a desk or other flat surface and is able to tell what keys you type. Undoubtedly, more toys will be added onto our appliance over time. But enough of what we need is currently available to let us know it's coming soon. Expect to see expensive, but usable, devices in about 2 years. Expect computer sales to plummet in 3-5 years.

November 22, 2008