The home computer has come a long way since it was made popular in the 1980s. From clumsy boxes with flickering screens and minimalist interfaces worthy of a bad science fiction movie, to sleek designs with crisp graphics and dizzying specifications. However if the technology has experienced significant performance improvement it has barely experienced any diversification.
In recent years however, the introduction of radically different designs has shaken the very foundations of the industry. Whereas the leaders of the past were Intel and Microsoft, the big names now are Google, Apple and Facebook. Since the golden days of the tower based desktop computer, there has undeniably been a transformation of the market place towards online based software and portable and increasingly specialized hardware. Ironically, it was scientific progress, the workhorse of traditional business models (selling upgraded versions of previous designs), which brought forth the destabilization of existing standards.
So what are these new technologies, and how do they contribute to the extinction of the traditional home computer?
The history of the computer is one of visionary entrepreneurs who were able to make available to the public an evasive technology. The very first computers were not at all user friendly, in fact their use was restricted to the commercial sphere. It was not until Bill Gates invented a graphical interface with Windows that computers took the form under which we now use them.
Since the introduction of Windows in 1981, there has been dramatic improvement in the performance of the machines and their softwares. However the format of the product experienced surprising stability: a box containing motherboard, power supply, optical drives and memory, connected to a screen and to peripherals. Modern computers may have quad cores, gigabytes of ram and hard drive space, graphics card which resemble small power plants, LCDs and surround sound, and they may run Windows 7, but their structure and their user interface are essentially the same as their ancestors’.
Lately however, there has been a dramatic shift in the nature of the products available on the market. The personal computer no longer is a standard of reference, instead there are multiple applications of the technology. From smartphones, to tablets, to picture frames, to intelligent TVs and alarm clocks, to all kinds of interactive surfaces such as digital whiteboards. Furthermore the market for software is also experiencing a revolution, the box based title is becoming less and less popular to the profit of web based platforms such as social networking sites, remote desktops and cloud computing.
The hegemony of Microsoft was challenged from multiple directions simultaneously. On the one hand the explosion of online activity made web based application more attractive, social networking websites became the next milestone in the evolution of human communications. Who would have thought that the telephone was not the endgame in terms of overcoming distance? On the other Apple provided the basis for diversification of the technology by commercializing sleek designs such as the iPod. The effect, brought forth by products made available thanks to technological progress, was to provide alternatives in a market originally organized as a monopoly. Despite the entrepreneurial genius of the industry leaders, the technology build its own momentum of development. Therefore we can argue that what has proved disruptive to the original design was not the introduction of new competitors, it was the natural evolution of the technology.
The problem with Microsoft was that it was unable to adapt beyond the original concept of a computer. Instead of changing its emphasis towards new technologies such as web based applications and diversified devices, it attempted to enforce its trademark against the competing forces by leveraging the power of its market penetration, a strategy which has served well over the previous years. But you cant resist the forces of evolution, ask the dinosaurs, therefore instead of spearheading the technological revolution, and molding its commercial shape for the future (much like it had at the onset of the personal computer), Microsoft was condemned to backtrack against its original strategy and model the technology of competitors once inferior, such as the graphical design of OS X for Windows Vista. Furthermore the company jumped on the web wagon too late, was unable to neutralize Google and is now stuck with Yahoo.
But the real deathblow to the traditional definition of the personal computer came from a most unlikely source and traced what could well be the most dramatic comeback in the history of commercial rivalries. Apple had been struggling with the task of providing a competing platform to an existing standard for decades. After having apparently lost the war for the personal computer, it was reinvented as a provider of superior consumer electronics with the release of its iPod portfolio. Because of the zero sum nature of the PC market, compatibility is the key through which leaders enforce their position. Microsoft had long abused of this strategy and was sued numerous times over their uncompetitive practices of pushing Internet Explorer and other software onto their customers, in effect denying access to the competition. Apple used the exact same strategy to steal back some market shares by distributing their own exclusive operating system requirements through the popularity of their MP3 players: iTunes. It seemed that both rivals would settle for an uneasy truce, but Apple saw much further than that. Apple saw that the public was hungry for new technologies, and that these technologies need not conform to existing standards. In that sense Apple demonstrated the same entrepreneurial creativity which made Microsoft famous in the first place, they were able to anticipate a market which did not yet exist. The iPod seemed pretty harmless when it first came out, but it was much more than a sleek MP3 design, it was the first prototype of a technological standard which would one day revolutionize the industry.
It was the natural development of technology driven by scientific progress which destabilized the market for personal computers by making available competing products and platforms. This transition was amplified by the aggressive commercial strategies of some companies competing for control over a new set of technological standards, and the lack of flexibility of existing market leaders in adapting to a changing demand. But then what are these new technological standards, and what do they indicate in terms of the future of the computer as a product?
The iPad is a shining example of the changing nature of the technology. The fact that competitors are coming up with similar products illustrate how nervous the industry is about its potential. Apple had begun its crusade for functional simplicity long before its latest commercial victories. As such apple products never offered much value to the specialized customer such as the gaming crowd because of their lack of customizability. However they were popular among a much wider audience of people who did not wish to learn how to troubleshoot a computer, but seek a user friendly interface.
The streamlining of hardware activity such as boot sequence, or maintenance routines, has been the trademark of Mac OS since its introduction. With the iPad’s operating system, Apple is taking this philosophy one step further, eliminating all but the most basic navigation features to provide a highly intuitive user experience. The techies among us will call it a mixed blessing, because who doesn’t like to manage performance, but the rest will appreciate the opportunity of using the latest technology without having to understand it.
If the tablet is the laptop of the future, what kind of design features can we expect?
Some companies might have a hard time getting over it, but physical buttons are a thing of the past. When touch screens with multiple points of contact were made popular by the Iphone in 2007, they quickly became the new technological standard for their functional simplicity and their high degree of interactivity. Today the technology is used in all kinds of hardware, from public access information boards, to wall screens, to table tops, to traditional computer screens. Now that touch screen navigation has been established as the next logical step in the evolution of user input technology, there comes a series of necessary modifications to the mechanics of user interfaces.
First because the finger is much less precise than a mouse pointer, all buttons need to become bigger, which reduces the screen space available for other information. This results in two outcomes, on the one hand the style of content becomes more important as the attention of the user must be channelled towards navigation items, and on the other greater attention is given to the composition of the screen as to maximize available screen space. These two outcomes can be said to be desirable in as much as they contribute to design optimization.
Second because of the miniaturization of the technology exemplified by the Iphone’s potential as a computer device, and the resulting restriction of screen space, desktop based navigation (what I would call dynamic navigation) is no longer practical and programmers have to revert to table based, linear flow of navigation (from one screen to the next). This would actually be a regression in terms of technological progress if we were not dealing with a much smaller line of products.
If the user is expected to fulfill all his software needs through a streamlined interface, all software should be designed as a finished product and conform to industry wide functional and aesthetic standards. The software market today is a eclectic mix of professional grade products and artisanal designs, which results in poor continuity across user experience. If the graphical requirements associated with touch screen navigation become the new standard of reference, we can expect a standardization of graphical interfaces across platforms.
Another important aspect of the design requirements of the future is integration with online based services. The explosion of online based activity such as social networking, media and commercial transactions make of the internet the central repository of most human information. We are used to interacting with the internet from a browser window, however the diversification of the hardware makes for some exciting opportunity in terms of interface and web content management. The flawless integration of the Appstore from the iPhone for example, the indexing of social networking resources from the Windows Phone 7, the online component of gaming systems such as Xbox live, are evidence that more and more the boundaries between local and online content are being blurred. The important online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are in a position to promote their own set of standards which has the effect of providing a generic structure from which to better organize online traffic. The purists will lament about the death of net neutrality, but the users will enjoy improved functionality. The Facebook developer framework for example demonstrates how creative use of web technology can provide an experience similar to that of traditional software.
What these technical considerations entail for the future of the technology is that user interfaces will require simplicity, interactivity, online integration and linearity. No longer will the user be expected to manually reorganize open windows, instead the responsibility of managing complexity will be with the programmer, resulting in software which will be more efficient despite losing some flexibility.
We are experiencing a vulgarization of the technology which was until now only available to the public as personal computers. It has resulted in the commercializations of increasingly specialized products with simplified software and standardized interfaces. More than a technological breakthrough, we are experiencing a change in mentalities with regards to how we understand and use computers. From a scientific device with mysterious powers, to an object of connectivity, to an everyday companion, computers are more than ever permeating every layer of life in society. If there are any lessons to be learned from the evolution of the personal computer as a product, it is not to take existing standards for granted.
Of course the traditional home computer will not disappear any times soon, there are still plenty of applications for its use. All kinds of specialized software for example would not be functional without a mouse and keyboard. Besides the current system suffers from a serious lack of integration; the next generation of handhelds operate with competing and incompatible standards (Android and IOS), and the much flaunted next generation of online frameworks still do not communicate well with each other.