The Economist, Special Edition, Oct 8 2011
AUGUST 12TH 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of the launch of the IBM 5150 personal computer, which established the technical standards and design to which many PCs subsequently adhered. In a blog post to mark the occasion, Mark Dean, IBM’s chief technology officer in the Middle East and Africa, who worked on the original designs, revealed that he had already ditched his PC for a tablet computer. “When I helped design the PC,” he wrote, “I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline.” He went on to predict that the PC was destined to go the same way as typewriters and vinyl records.
The notion that a post-PC era has begun is not universally accepted. Microsoft, for instance, likes to talk instead about a “PC-plus” world in which millions of PCs will still be sold every year. It is true that the machines that first brought computing into people’s homes are not about to vanish, not least because there are many emerging markets where people still crave them. China, which could outstrip America as the world’s largest market for PCs next year, is one of many countries that still has plenty of potential for growth. Chinese computer-makers such as Lenovo, which acquired IBM’s PC business in 2005, are well placed to profit from this rising demand.
Nevertheless, as this special report has argued, a new age of personal technology is indeed dawning, at least in the rich world, in which people will depend on a far wider range of devices to keep them connected to friends, colleagues and others around the clock. It is hard to predict exactly what shape and form all of these gadgets will take, but there are going to be plenty of them. In places such as Africa, cheap smartphones could well turn out to be people’s primary computing devices. “We are in the process of putting supercomputers in many more people’s hands,” says Mr Huang, NVIDIA’s boss.
Billions of new users of personal technology will encourage tech firms to pour even more money into R&D and to bring innovations to market even faster. Already companies are beavering away at technologies that will make it easier, say, for people to use voice commands and gestures to control all kinds of gadgets. And a cornucopia of apps and other software in developers’ pipelines will make it possible to do many more things on mobile devices. That, in turn, will reinforce the phenomenon of consumerisation.
This new era will also see many more upheavals in the tech industry’s landscape. Several big takeovers announced this year, including Microsoft’s $8.5 billion purchase of Skype and Google’s $12.5 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, have been motivated by the realisation that the winners in personal technology’s next phase will be those firms that boast the most compelling ecosystems of devices and cloud-based services. Apple has had something of a head start in this race thanks to the visionary Mr Jobs, but Amazon, Google and a host of other companies are now hard on its heels.
To ubiquity and beyond
As these ecosystems expand, the world will move steadily closer to the ubiquitous-computing model envisaged by Xerox PARC’s Mark Weiser. As it does so, it will find itself grappling with a number of thorny issues that include constraints on wireless connectivity, concerns about individual privacy and worries about the environmental impact of all those billions of gadgets and gizmos.
Take connectivity first. As smartphones and other mobile devices spread, they will need robust, rapid networks to deliver data to their owners. The good news is that ultra-fast 4G mobile broadband networks are being rolled out. According to Deloitte, more than 150 carriers in 60 countries are committed to the deployment or trial of 4G services. The snag is that in some countries, including America, radio spectrum ideal for mobile video and data communications is in short supply. Governments could help by, say, encouraging broadcasters whose audiences are dwindling to relinquish more of their bandwidth.
They will also need to monitor closely the impact that new kinds of devices have on individual privacy. Concerns have already been raised about smartphones’ location-tracking capabilities, which can reveal users’ whereabouts if data are not properly protected. Wearable devices that track people’s vital signs are also going to be collecting mountains of extremely sensitive information. “We are all part of a brave new experiment in privacy whose outcome is unclear,” says Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
The best hope for a positive outcome is to promote clear principles that govern how these sensitive data are collected and put to work. The main one should be that it is users who own their data and they should be able to control what is done with the stuff. That means, among other things, asking them to “opt in” to services that gather sensitive information and making it easy for them to opt out again at any time. Firms should also be transparent about what information is being collected and how it is being used. At the same time, people need to take more responsibility for themselves—for example by choosing robust passwords and keycodes on their mobile devices rather than taking a cavalier attitude to their own data.
A third area of potential friction involves the environment. As it pumps out many more gadgets, the consumer-electronics industry is starting to attract the kind of scrutiny typically reserved for oil companies and mining firms. For instance, earlier this year Chinese environmental campaigners took Apple to task for using suppliers they claimed were guilty of polluting. Activists have also lambasted working conditions at places such as Foxconn, which has taken several steps to improve standards at its factories. Big consumer-tech firms will need to intensify their efforts to police subcontractors and think even harder about how to make their products greener if they are to avoid continual criticism in the post-PC world.
Governments will also have to come to terms with the fact that mobile devices and online services such as Twitter and Facebook are empowering citizens in novel and occasionally unsettling ways. Smartphones tapping into Twitter and other messaging services have been blamed for the rioting that swept through English cities earlier this year. Politicians even called for RIM temporarily to shut down its BlackBerry Messenger service, which was being used by some rioters to co-ordinate attacks. Yet slamming social media and smartphones will not solve the underlying causes of unrest.
There has been much discussion, too, about the role that mobile phones and social media have played in stirring up groundswells of protest in places such as north Africa and the Middle East. Some observers, such as Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University, have argued that they have been an important catalyst for change. Others, such as Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, worry that they can easily be abused by repressive regimes to track and monitor opponents.
Protest and tweet
Although talk of “Twitter revolutions” is greatly overblown, there is little doubt that tweets and the use of other social media helped attract attention to the revolutionaries’ cause. And although Mr Morozov is right to point out that new technologies can aid surveillance from above, smartphones and small, wearable cameras will also boost the ability of activists to conduct “sousveillance” from below. Citizens can use these and other gadgets to capture what is happening and transmit evidence of abuse swiftly to the outside world via Twitter and other channels. “Technology is definitely serving as an accelerant,” argues Jared Cohen, a former official in America’s State Department who is now the director of Google Ideas, a think-tank run by the internet company.
It can also accelerate progress in other areas, as this report has argued. Companies, in particular, will need to develop digital instincts to take advantage of the talents of their own employee-revolutionaries, who are storming IT departments’ barricades, armed with tablets and smartphones. Instead of being early adopters of new technology, companies will need to become fast adapters to whatever devices their employees believe will equip them to do their jobs most effectively. Those firms that get this transition right stand to benefit enormously from having more creative and confident workforces. Those that do not will find it difficult to attract talented staff and risk losing ground to their competitors.
The reversal of the innovation conveyor belt highlighted by Mr Andreessen, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, represents a huge opportunity for governments, armies and other organisations too. By exploiting powerful and cheap consumer technology, they will be able to save money and develop brand-new capabilities at a time when budgets are tight. Many of the most innovative ways to use new gadgets and services will be discovered by the people for whom they were originally designed.
The very last flight of America’s space shuttle, which took place in July, carried two iPhones for the first time, using an app that measures things such as altitude and orbital location. NASA’s use of the smartphone won it plenty of headlines. But when it came to putting an iPhone into space, the Geissbühlers of Brooklyn beat the mighty space agency to it. In the new world of personal technology, even the sky is no longer the limit.