Future Shock: the PC of 2019

What's in store for everybody's go-to computer? Watch the cool video from MIT's Media Lab for one vision.

For those of you who want the world at your fingertips, the wait is almost over.

The future PC promises to put nearly everything you could need or want right in your palm.

Think of a souped-up version of today's smartphone, with a monitor that unrolls into a larger screen and a biometric security system that lets you access everything in your professional and personal life from anywhere, with all the data residing in the cloud. Wave it at your car to unlock the door. Order and pay for your morning coffee with a touch of a button. Plug it into a docking station and project that big presentation to your clients. Book a weekend getaway with just a few clicks.

"PCs are going from engines or tools to portals and enablers. The vision of what they'll be in the future is a partner. They'll be participating in the higher cognitive tasks of what people do to get their jobs done," says Andrew Chien, director of research at Intel Corp.

The personal computer has been a corporate workhorse for decades. And while it has evolved, becoming slimmer and more mobile, in many ways it still resembles those old terminals tethered to the mainframe. But the next decade will bring dramatic changes, as the PC evolves past the standard desktop and laptop units to amalgamations of computing devices and their peripherals.

This future PC will be smarter, too. It could discreetly remind you of the name of an acquaintance and alert you when it's time to take your medicine. It will be your colleague, your butler—and possibly your friend.

We talked and corresponded with a dozen or so experts in R&D, IT management and academia to get a feel for what they're expecting the PC to look like a decade from now.

A New Look

One thing everyone seems to agree on: The PC of 2019 won't look like today's laptops. "I'm not seeing people carrying anything that looks like a book," says Dan Siewiorek, a professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the university's Human-Computer Interaction Institute. "It would be like a phone or a ring or watch. It will probably take multiple form factors."

Siewiorek says function will increasingly influence what PCs look like. An older person who needs help with independent living, for example, might carry a PC in the form of a wristwatch and use it as a virtual coach that reminds him about appointments or medicine schedules.

A technical worker might have her PC in her eyeglasses, allowing her to access and view information through embedded monitors and share what she's seeing with colleagues and supervisors via a camera in the glasses. Siewiorek says he can even imagine how PC technology could revolutionize the way, say, offshore crane operators or airplane mechanics do their jobs.

The changing ways in which we work and live—and the blurring line between the two—are driving the changes we will see in our computers.

"The PC of 2019 will be nothing like the PC we know today," says Wen Xiao, CIO of global service delivery at London-based telecommunications giant BT Group PLC. "It will be smaller and ubiquitous. Its function is less of computing and more of access control and communications. The computing capabilities will reside inside the cloud and be accessed on demand by [the] individual user."

He says younger workers, and certainly those who will enter the workforce in the coming decade, expect their data—not just their devices—to travel with them. They need their PCs to work wherever they want them to, and they don't want to worry about storing and transferring data.

Xiao says virtualization and cloud computing are already enabling that new level of mobility, and the trend is expected to accelerate. "The computing [and] data-storage functions will all be virtualized—device-independent, location-independent data and applications stored somewhere in the cloud, and on-demand software applications," Xiao says.

That, in turn, changes what we need from hardware. "Its main purpose is no longer computing but identification," he explains. "As a result, it will be super small or most likely combined with other devices, like mobile phone, key, bio-ID, etc. What's inside is a unique identification of the user."

Bill Schilit, a research engineer at Google Inc. and associate editor in chief of the IEEE Computer Society's Computer Magazine, says he, too, sees "the trend more and more off the desktop. We see people using just their cell phones or a very thin client on their desks or some sort of docking model, where you take your cell phone and plug it into a keyboard."

Moreover, the PCs of the future will put the accent on "personal," he says (emphasizing that this vision is his, not Google's). Consumer demand for games and instant access to everyday information—announcements of school closings, traffic updates, weather reports—will drive adoption, he says.

"We're going to see a lot more people using computer phones/smartphones and a lot more software for them," he says.

Shape Changers

The PCs of the future could be more flexible in every way—even physically. For starters, they'll have adjustable screens that users can stretch, roll or unfold to open.

"So you can contort that device and make it bigger, maybe widen it to 6 inches tall and 10 inches wide so you can watch TV or access information through wireless broadband or peer-to-peer technology," says Sam Driver, an analyst at research firm ThinkBalm in Little Compton, R.I. "Then say you take that device to your office, you can stretch it and start working, and you can have it communicate in the office with printers and other devices."

But that's just the beginning. Researchers are working on programmable products that contain embedded microprocessors and storage in the material itself. The material would be programmed to change shape based on the user's needs, Chien explains.

For example, you could morph your smartphone into a Bluetooth headset and then into a remote control by just touching a button on the device. Think of it as the ultimate Transformer toy.

"You can build computing systems that conform to different uses," Chien says, noting that the technology might not be market-ready by 2019, but it will be close.

The future PC will be different in other significant ways from today's desktop system.

There's a good chance your keyboard and monitor will be gone, replaced by projected versions instead. This approach is already being pioneered at the MIT Media Lab.

And that mouse? It will be rendered obsolete within the decade thanks to touch-screen technology, Xiao says.

Instead, he says, "output could be displayed on a variety of surfaces," including tabletops (as is the case with Microsoft Surface systems), TVs and mobile phone screens as well as vertical multitouch screens (like Perceptive Pixel Inc.'s offering), e-paper or any blank surface for holograms to be projected on.

Xiao also says that users will no longer have to choose between only full-size monitors and the miniature versions found on handhelds. Moreover, the keyboard will be obsolete or replaced by a hologram.

Siewiorek says your PC will understand boundaries, too, and adjust displays accordingly. So if you're looking at confidential budgets projected on a wall when someone walks into your office, your PC will sense that person's presence and blank out the information.

Kiss wires and plugs good-bye, too. Wireless will rule, and your PC will possibly draw power in new ways, Driver says. You might use magnetic induction charging to transfer power from the building's power supply without the need for chargers, plugs and wires. Or, Chien says, your PC might scavenge energy from the environment, drawing power from light or heat or even the motion around it.

"You can untether computing devices from power cords because they may well get some of the energy they need from the ambient environment," he predicts. "So you can charge laptops or mobile phones without plugging them in."

Xiao says that future PCs will also have better, smarter ways to input information. "Advancement in Semantic Web and artificial intelligence will greatly reduce the need of data input," he says. "Touch screens, voice commands, even brain waves will become the dominant input methods."

No more typing in data or using a mouse to manipulate data, Xiao says. Instead, you'll wave your head to move files or direct your thoughts to input information. These advances, once the realm of science fiction, are close to becoming mainstream reality.

Look Around

In fact, much of what's ahead is already here, at least in primitive form. "Anything you'd likely see in 10 years is available now," says Fred Killeen, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp., explaining that most technological innovations are available somewhere in some form years before they become mainstream.

Consider smartphones and wireless. Those are the precursors to what's on the horizon. Similarly, the advances taking place on the back end today—specifically, cloud computing and virtualization, along with ever-increasing levels of bandwidth—are laying the foundation for what's ahead. These technologies will continue to take data and storage off individual devices, allowing users with the right credentials to access the information from anywhere at any time with any device.

You will no longer need to store everything on a hard drive or transfer data to a USB stick, says Randy Adams, founder and CEO of Searchme Inc., a search engine company in Mountain View, Calif. "Mobile devices will be almost disposable, because information will be up in the cloud," he says.

However, tomorrow's PC will truly be personal, customized with the software you choose and the trove of personal data it will work with—including, among other things, credit card numbers, the electronic "keys" to your car and the biometrics that secure the whole package.

Such big changes won't take place overnight, of course, and the new technologies won't be adopted universally. After all, some companies are still using green-screen mainframe interfaces. "So in 2019, you may have a lot of applications that don't look a whole lot different than they do today," Killeen says.

And there are challenges on the path to the PC of 2019. The components of the future device will have to learn to communicate using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. They'll also have to become smarter, "learning" to work under the confines of social conventions. (You don't want that wristwatch-style PC blurting out that it's time for your heart pills while you're meeting with the CEO, do you?) And they'll have to have appropriate verification and security layers, says Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. But all of this will come together in time, and it's already on the way.

"The PC of 2019 will look more like something that comes out of the iPhone than out of what we currently have on the desktop or laptop," says Michael Zyda, director of the GamePipe Laboratory and a professor of engineering practice in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California. "The PC will fit in your pocket; it will have 10TB of online storage or more—the size of the entire Library of Congress."

He calls this device "the context machine" and says it will know "your location [and] what you are probably looking for and will sense when a friend is nearby and remind you of their name and the last thing you spoke with them about."

The context machine will preload itself with the information you require, Zyda says, adding that "it will be your phone, your e-mail, your office, your social secretary and confidant, your entertainment center, your game machine."

It will just be part of life, he says, and it will be so personalized that "there will not be the artificial distinction between home and office device. It will be your device."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Computerworld.

This story, "Future Shock: the PC of 2019" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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