What’s the next step in the evolution of the computer?

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We’re now in 2011. 15 years ago was 1996, a year when few people had home computers and even fewer had Internet. The first ever MP3 player came out in 1998, cost $250 and came with 32MB of memory. The iPod came out in 2001 along with the first color screen cell phones and Windows XP for computers. Over the next 5 years everything became smaller, lighter, faster, and cheaper. When we watched mutants fly around in a hyperadvanced jet to save the world for the third time in the movie X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, he world had no clue what a netbook or an iPhone was, as those products were both released in 2007. If you go back 1 year 7 months to January 2010, you land in a world where the iPad is just a rumor, Android is just a cell phone OS and a Windows tablet or UMPC is the ultimate in mobile computing.

The reason I’m giving you this short history lesson is to point out how ridiculously fast technology is evolving. It’s unparalleled by anything in society and looking at history in terms of what technology was groundbreaking at the time gives you a whole other perspective than looking at it from the point of e.g. your own age, movies that came out a specific year or anything like that. When it evolves this fast however, I can’t help but wonder what sort of technological everyday life we’re looking at in a few years.

If you look at the evolution of the computer, you can see a clear pattern. Going from large corporate computers in the early days of the computer to tablets we have today, we’ve essentially just made things smaller and more efficient. Shrink down a corporate computer and you get a desktop computer. Attach a screen and battery power and you have a laptop. Shrink it down again and you have a netbook. Remove half of it – the keyboard part – and you have a tablet. The thing is though that we’re now essentially left with a battery powered screen, as everything else from external power sources to cooling systems and input devices have gone down the drain in the name of mobile computing. The next step in the evolution of mobile computers is certainly going to be interesting, as we can’t just remove more of it as we wouldn’t have anything left.

For the first time in decades we’re at a point where we’re limited by human physiology rather than technology. We can’t just make a 4-inch 1920×1080 device that fits in a pocket and does everything a tablet does, simply because too few people would be able to see such a display. Even if you could see something that small, all the advantages that tablets have in terms of physical screen real estate would be gone. Tablets are becoming so mainstream that they’re used by quite literally everyone from the age of 2 to 102 and beyond, and part of that is the form factor and interface – not the screen resolution or CPU power. There’s a reason why books haven’t become smaller as we’ve gotten better printing presses; they’re designed to be used by humans, and we don’t shrink down in size like that. We’re at the point where we’ve successfully made books electronic, both in terms of size and capabilities (with e-ink displays and months long battery life).

In the next few years we’ll naturally see more improvements to the current form factors, meaning faster processors, battery battery life and overall lighter devices. As for any changes in form factor however, I’m very skeptical. We will either stick to the form factors we have for the foreseeable future, or we will move to something so drastically different that the concept of a screen that has followed us through all computer iterations over the last few decades will have to be redefined.

There are a couple of technologies in existence that could potentially do this, but whether it’s practical and likely is another matter. The first would be foldable screens, which is something that many companies are working hard on and have prototypes of. Even though we’ve gone from huge CRT screens to LCD screens and then further minimized the space a screen takes up by making the components smaller though LED lighting and OLED screens, we’ve always kept the actual surface area of the screen in the same range. Foldable screens could change that, and revolutionize what we can fit in our pockets. If we could have a 4″ cell phone that folded out to 8″ for easier reading and interacting, then obviously we wouldn’t need static 8″ screens anymore. You could fit 8″ of screen in your pocket and always have a “large” screen with you. The technology to do just that is quite far away though. Right now we have a very limited market of bendable screens, but nothing like what a foldable tablet would require. The irony is that as we improve static screens more and more, we also raise our expectations for a future new type of screen. If we get 3 megapixel resolutions with perfect colors and viewing angles on our static screens, we wouldn’t just accept lower resolution foldable screens. Foldable screens therefore have to not only become a reality on a proof of concept level, but also race after static screens in terms of features. It will happen at some point, the question is just when.

Another possibility is video glasses. The technology exists, and you can go out and buy glasses that you plug into a video source to watch a tiny screen inside a pair of glasses. It’s quite possible that in a few years we can fit a pair of very high res screens inside such glasses, make it run off its own hardware, use front cameras for augmented reality and use gesture controls for navigation (Microsoft Kinect, anyone?). There’s nothing stopping someone from making such a product and have it released by the end of 2011, except for the fact that the thing would be so ridiculously huge that it would likely be a video helmet, not video glasses. Shrinking down electronics is something human kind knows how to do though, which is the whole reason why we now have 600 gram tablets that run for 10 hours on a single charge and outperforms 10 year old ubercomputers. Still, moving from a hand held device to something we actually wear is as much a question of social acceptance as it is technological possibilities and I’m not sure that many people would want to walk around with something like that. Then again, if you go back 20 years and tell people that “in 20 years you’ll hold a tiny piece of plastic to your ear for hours on end no matter where you are, both while walking and while driving” you’d get more than one invitation to visit a mental institution.

I could also speculate in more absurd technologies, such as holograms and brain implants. However the two technologies I mention above actually exist on a somewhat advanced level and aren’t just science fiction, so I think I’ll stick with those for now. Personally, I don’t really think we’ll have any massive changes in form factor for years to come. The fact that computers have never been as universally popular across all ages as now that they’re the same shape as books and magazines is not a coincidence, and I don’t think we’ll move away from that any time soon. We have successfully made computers look like books, and if history is any indication, that’s a rather popular form factor.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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