The Economist Magazine Special report: Personal technology Beyond the PC
Mobile digital gadgets are overshadowing
the personal computer, says Martin Giles.
Their impact will be far-reaching.
IF YOU HAVE a phone, these days even space is within reach. Last year Luke Geissbühler and his son, who live in Brooklyn, popped a high-definition video camera and an Apple iPhone into a sturdy protective box with a hole for the camera’s lens. They attached the box to a weather balloon, which they released about 50 miles (80km) outside New York City, after getting the approval of the authorities. The balloon soared into the stratosphere and eventually burst. A parachute brought it to the ground. By tracking the iPhone’s inbuilt global positioning system, the Geissbühlers were able to retrieve the box and the video of their “mission”, which shows the curvature of the planet clearly. The results can be seen at www.brooklynspaceprogram.org.
The iPhone and other smartphones are proving extremely useful on Earth too. These devices, which let people download and install applications, or “apps”, from online stores run by phonemakers, telecoms companies and others, are starting to displace ordinary mobile phones in many countries. Ofcom, Britain’s telecoms regulator, recently reported that more than one in four adults there uses a smartphone. Nielsen, a market-research firm, reckons the devices make up the majority of mobile-phone purchases in America. Emerging markets are embracing them as well: in Indonesia, BlackBerry handsets made by Canada’s Research in Motion (RIM) have become a status symbol among the country’s fast-growing middle class.
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Sales of tablet computers, though still small, are also growing rapidly. Since Apple’s iPad arrived last year, a host of rivals have appeared, such as RIM’s Playbook, Samsung’s Galaxy Tab and Sony’s Tablet. All eyes are now on Amazon’s Kindle Fire. With smartphones, which seem to be surgically attached to the hand of every teenager and many an adult, tablets have opened up a new dimension to mobile computing that is seducing consumers. Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, believes that in 2011 combined shipments of smartphones and tablets will overtake those of personal computers (PCs).
The revolution is mobile
This marks a turning-point in the world of personal technology. For around 30 years PCs in various forms have been people’s main computing devices. Indeed, they were the first machines truly to democratise computing power, boosting personal productivity and giving people access, via the internet, to a host of services from their homes and offices. Now the rise of smartphones and tablet computers threatens to erode the PC’s dominance, prompting talk that a “post-PC” era is finally dawning.
PCs are not about to disappear. Forecasters expect 350m-360m of them to be sold this year and the market is likely to keep growing, if slowly. With their keyboards, big screens and connectivity to the web, PCs are still ideal for many tasks, including the writing of this article. And they continue to evolve, cheap, light “ultrabooks” being the latest in a long line of innovations. Even so, the Wintel era—dominated by PCs using Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Intel’s microchips—is drawing to a close. The recent news that HP, the world’s largest computer-maker, is thinking of spinning off its PC business to focus on
A new tech landscape is taking shape that offers consumers access to computing almost anywhere and on many different kinds of device. Smartphones are at the forefront of this change. The Yankee Group, a research firm, thinks that sales of these phones will overtake those of ordinary “feature” phones in many more countries in the next few years. But other kinds of machine, from Microsoft’s Xbox 360 gaming console, which allows gamers to contact friends while they play, to web-enabled television sets, are also helping people stay connected.
In part, this emerging array of devices reflects changes in society. As people come to rely more heavily on the web for everything from shopping to social networking, they need access to computing power in many more places. And as the line between their personal and their work lives has blurred, so demand has grown for devices that can be used seamlessly in both.
The consumer is king
The rise of tablets and smartphones also reflects a big shift in the world of technology itself. For years many of the most exciting advances in personal computing have come from the armed forces, large research centres or big businesses that focused mainly on corporate customers. Sometimes these breakthroughs found their way to consumers after being modified for mass consumption. The internet, for instance, was inspired by technology first developed by America’s defence establishment.
Over the past ten years or so, however, the consumer market has become a hotbed of innovation in its own right. “The polarity has reversed in the technology industry,” claims Marc Andreessen, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist whose firm, Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in several consumer companies, including Facebook and Twitter. Now, he says, many exciting developments in information technology (IT) are appearing in the hands of consumers first and only then making their way into other arenas—a trend that tech types refer to as the “consumerisation” of IT.
The transformation may not be quite as dramatic as Mr Andreessen’s remark implies. Armies, universities and other institutions still spend vast sums on research, the fruit of which will continue to nourish personal technology. Moreover, this is not the first time that individuals have taken the lead in using new gadgets: the first PCs were often sneaked into firms by a few geeky employees.
Nevertheless there are good reasons for thinking that the latest round of consumerisation is going to have a far bigger impact than its predecessors. One is that rising incomes have created a vast, global audience of early adopters for gadgets. Around 8m units of the Kinect, a Microsoft device that attaches to the Xbox and lets people control on-screen action with their body movements, were sold within 60 days of its launch in November 2010. No consumer-electronics device has ever sold so fast, according to Guinness World Records. “These people will absorb new technology on a scale that is simply quite stunning,” says Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s head of research and strategy.
The cost of many gadgets is falling fast, giving another fillip to consumption. Smartphones priced at around $100—after a subsidy from telecoms companies, which make money on associated data plans—are starting to appear in America. The cheapest Kindle, an e-reader from Amazon, sells for $79, against $399 for the first version launched in 2007. The cost of digital storage has also fallen dramatically. A gigabyte (GB) of storage, which is roughly enough to hold a two-hour film after compression, cost around $200,000 in 1980; today a disk drive holding a terabyte, or 1,024GB, costs around $100.
The growth of the internet and the rapid spread of fast broadband connectivity have also transformed the landscape. So has the rise of companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon, whose main aim is to delight individuals rather than businesses or governments. Apple, in particular, has been to the fore in the democratisation of IT, creating a host of impressive devices such as the iPhone and the iPad. Much of the credit for its success goes to Steve Jobs, who stood down in August as its chief executive.
This special report will examine in more detail the forces underlying the reversal in polarity to which Mr Andreessen refers and how they are affecting individuals, businesses and governments. The combination of new devices with pervasive connectivity and plentiful online content is raising citizens’ expectations of what personal technology can achieve. And it is leading them to bring their own devices into the workplace, where some of the technology they are expected to use now seems antediluvian by comparison. This trend is challenging companies to rethink their IT departments’ habit of treating employees as digital serfs who must do as they are told.
The burgeoning global market for smart consumer technology is also inspiring an outpouring of entrepreneurial energy that will create many more remarkable products. And it is encouraging organisations of all kinds to adapt innovations from the consumer world for their own ends. Companies are setting up online app stores for their employees; hospitals are handing out specially modified smartphones to nurses; soldiers are trying out tablet computers to control drones and experimenting with “battlefield apps”. Many more such opportunities are likely to emerge as the technological and economic forces behind this popular computing revolution gather steam.
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