Speculations on the new computing paradigm for the 21st century

The Thinker by Rodin

Last September I speculated that the introduction of the iPad might mean the death of Microsoft Windows. Microsoft seems to have gotten the iPad message. Last week it gave a preview of its newest incarnation of Windows, Windows 8 Metro that according to reports is looking very iPad-ish. In fact, apparently it’s hard to find the windows in Windows 8. Microsoft seems to be betting the farm on portable computing and a next generation of tablet computing in particular. The mouse is out. Using your fingers by touching the screen of your device is in. Windows are out. Sliding from application to application, like on the iPad, by simply moving your finger side to side on the touchscreen, is in.

At least that’s as best as I can figure out from press reports. I haven’t tried Windows 8 personally. But I have been using my iPad for a couple of months now and understand it quite well. Indeed, for a change I was prescient last September when I suggested Windows was in the early stages of its death throes. How we will compute in the 21st century is now fundamentally changing, driven largely by the late Steve Jobs and his singular vision of how portable computing should work.

Microsoft seems to be making it official in Windows 8: the desktop era is soon going to be history. Windows 8 is being careful to be backwards compatible, allowing mouse movement, windows in a desktop environment and 100% compatibility with its Microsoft Office suite. It has to be this way. One of the reasons Microsoft sucks at innovation is that they have backwards compatibility as a core part of its business strategy. Windows 3.1, later Windows 95 and even today in Windows 7 made sure that the DOS command prompt remained, and that you could still (largely) run all those text-based DOS applications. Microsoft must now make sure that Windows 8 maintains backwards compatibility with Windows 7, while fundamentally changing the user interface so that it is primarily a pad-based operating system. The price Microsoft pays as a result is a serious loss of agility and innovativeness as a company. Their business model essentially requires them to always play follow the leader.

The mouse seems destined for the trash bin, just like the five and a quarter inch diskette. Also going: the humble monitor. In the future the monitor you use will be the one built into your pad computer. As I suggested in September 2011, you might plug your pad computer into an external monitor at work, or might not. The larger screen is needed now because the windows metaphor requires lots of display real estate. When one application gets sole focus on the screen, and you effortlessly slide between them through simple finger gestures across your touchscreen (which by definition must be within a comfortable reach), the windows metaphor becomes obsolete, as does the need for a lot of screen real estate. The modest screen size of a tablet computer becomes usable and more productive.

Perhaps it was inevitable. As computing became increasingly portable, it becomes untethered from wired connections like mice, power cords and even keyboards. As batteries retain charges longer and CPUs get better at conserving power, we can work off our pad computer’s battery for an entire day, if needed. Integration adds value; components keep you tethered to a clunky past.

What will replace the desktop computer? Last September I envisioned a world where you carried your pad computer with you everywhere, and maybe plugged it into a keyboard and a larger monitor when you got to work. Now I see it differently. The desktop computer will effectively be consumed into the pad computer. Instead of having a computer monitor facing you, you will look down on your desk or at a forty-five degree angle to the screen of your pad computer. You will probably prefer a wireless keyboard, at least if you are a certain age. For those now in school, keyboards too are likely to become obsolete. Your keyboard may appear on a translucent area of your desk when needed, or for many tasks you can use the on-screen touch keyboard built into your pad computer instead. More likely, the latest generation will consider a microphone built into their pad computer as their new keyboard. They will simply say what needs to be put into electronic words. Unlike the voice recognition software we have today, this new class of software will be much more sophisticated, understanding context, adjusting for your style and retaining a natural fluency. Most of the time you will talk instead of type. To navigate, you will use finger movements. The combination of finger movements and voice will make you far more productive.

And what about the venerable Microsoft Office suite? It too is going to evolve and eventually may be subsumed into the operating system. In ten years it may have evolved into a product that we simply will not identify today. The whole notion of a document may be undergoing a fundamental shift. Like documents have sort of evolved into web pages, in the future how we communicate may no longer rest on a page metaphor at all. Documents will almost be alive. They will not be considered primarily textual anymore, but inherently multimedia creations where words, pictures, movies, animations and simulations all exist comfortably side by side, and all communicate information much more richly than they do today.

Whoever builds that (and it likely won’t be Microsoft) will be reinventing our concept of useful and structured information. It will be exciting to see it emerge.