TCS Daily

The Centrifuge Moves You

By Arnold Kling - June 17, 2003 12:00 AM

The information technology industry is undergoing its most fundamental transformation in almost 25 years. The personal computer, which was at the heart of the last major transformation, is disintegrating. The future looks very different from the recent past.

Centrifugal Force

One way to describe what is happening is that inventors are finding ways to pull apart the components of the personal computer and re-assemble them in different ways. Examples would include Hitachi's digital blackboard, Apple's iPod, the Microsoft-specified Smartphone, and all sorts of gadgets described at Gizmodo.

Perhaps the most striking illustration of the trend can be found in a recent report on a new personal server. According to science reporter Mark Baard this new technology:
"is being developed at Intel Research by ubiquitous computing wizard Roy Want, is the size of a deck of cards, half the weight of an iPaq, and has no i/o, no screen, and no peripherals. The device never leaves its user's pocket or handbag.
The personal server mounts on any PC that can recognize wireless devices: 'Any computer becomes your computer,' said Want."

I think of this as something like a smart card, but with wireless communication capabilities and much greater data storage capacity. It might hold your medical records, your favorite music and photo albums, and your calendar and address book.

Back in the 20th century, the imperative of personal computing was integration. We needed a display, input devices, mouse, processor, modem, and storage media in a single machine. Above all, we needed software to assemble these parts into a functional whole. Peripherals were built under the assumption that they would be physically connected to the main hardware.

Today, we are seeing the outlines of a different design strategy. Wireless radio signals can provide the digital connection between devices. Instead of assuming that your device is designed to attach to a standard personal computer, you can be relatively agnostic about what other types of devices your gadget might encounter. Your cell phone can communicate with other cell phones, of course, but you might also want it to talk to vending machines, cash registers, or global positioning satellites.

The wireless revolution is creating a centrifugal force. Before the advent of protocols like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, information technology was dominated by centripetal forces, which drove everything closer to the central personal computing device. Now, we have centrifugal forces, which are pulling the personal computer apart.

Transactions vs. Documents

The personal computer was designed by researchers at Xerox, and its evolution was driven by document production. Word processing, spreadsheets, and graphics software were designed primarily to produce documents, particularly for business meetings and presentations. The "paperless office" turned out to be a cruel joke.

In the world of mobile computing and wireless communication, the focus is on transactions. I want to pay automatically as my car drives through the toll booth; when I visit a doctor for the first time, I want to be able to provide my insurance information and medical history at the push of a button, instead of filling out those stupid forms; when I am in a supermarket, I want the cart to be able to add up the prices of all the goods that I put into it, and then when I am ready to leave I want to see the total on a screen where I can approve payment.

Transaction-oriented computing differs from document-oriented computing in fundamental ways. There are fewer human "keystrokes" involved in transactions, with much more behind-the scenes activity taking place to ensure the integrity of the databases that are at the heart of transaction systems.

Hardware vs. Software

For the usual personal computer applications, the user experience is determined primarily by software. The hardware was commoditized.

With the centrifugal trend toward separate components, the software can be simpler, because the devices are more specialized, with much of the user interface embedded in the hardware. In fact, to the extent that communication among disparate devices requires clearly-articulated standards, it is the software that will be commoditized.

On the other hand, the types of devices will vary, and the hardware design becomes critical. How can the user interact with the device without a keyboard? How large a screen is necessary? What functionality must be compromised in order to lengthen battery life? The big winner in the personal computer era was called Microsoft. It could be that Microhard would be a better name for a company today.

Bureaucracy vs. Ad Hocracy

Compared with the mainframe, the personal computer fosters decentralization. Nonetheless, it still wound up being a tool for paper-pushers. A depressing amount of the output of the PC consists of presentations delivered to committees.

The transaction-focused era of mobile computing will be less oriented toward fixed committees. Instead, particularly as social software evolves, we will see teams that form quickly, accomplish a task, and then dissolve.

I wish I knew more accurately how developments are going to play out. However, precisely because we are at an inflection point in information technology, prediction is difficult. As technology analyst Kevin Werbach put it recently:
"Linear progressions... are fundamentally boring... If instead the path forward involves stair-step transitions, through which the entire ecosystem reconfigures itself, life is far more exciting. Change is no longer measurable by one variable. It arrives in waves of interconnected developments whose relationship we only dimly discern."

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