The Era of “Magic Computing”
The internet may be the most significant invention of mankind yet it is the most invisible one. You see computers, tablets, phones, various kinds of screens and data centers, but none of them quite capture the significance of the whole thing. All of them are just individual components which on their own don’t exactly mean as much, but as a network create something that’s in a colloquial sense becoming downright “magical”.
This is becoming ever more evident with the increased ubiquity of wireless networking, mobile devices, and cloud computing. These three elements create a perfect storm for what I here dub “Magic Computing”.
Wireless networking in form of ubiquitous Wi-Fi connections and mobile broadband mean that just about everyone can be online anywhere at any time, and with sufficiently high connection speeds for smooth communication and data transfer operations (except for large scale transfers measuring in over a hundred megabytes).
The powerful specialized all-in-one mobile computers we call smartphones, tablets, and ultrabooks mean that people can and will take advantage of this always and everywhere connectivity whereas all of our devices can have access to all of our data, as well as all of world’s knowledge, at any time.
And finally there is the magic sauce called “cloud computing” to glue these two elements together into a seamless whole. It is what stands between your data on your home computer, your data on your tablet, and your data on your smartphone. Indeed, the “cloud” is essentially just a fancy word for “the internet data center”.
It could be said that these three elements only create the infrastructure, but not the magic itself. They simply open up the possibilities, but a wireless network connection between mobile devices, the internet and the data center alone don’t do much until we inject it with the intelligence that takes advantage of these possibilities. And that’s where most of the innovation is happening now, and where most of the “magic” is being revealed. It is where all the apps and cloud services come in.
It might be best to illustrate how this era of “magic computing” is shaping up by showcasing a few exciting examples.
Until recently this was perhaps the best example of the “magic” I am talking about, perhaps because Apple is so good at presenting it for what it is. Take a picture on your iPhone and it immediately shows on your iPad, as well as the Mac. Buy a song on one device and it is automatically available on all of your other devices. With Mac OS X Mountain Lion this behavior is extended even further.
When you take that photo with an iCloud enabled device the feeling is as if you are storing it into your personal space, which is everywhere you are, instead of the specific device you are holding right now. This kind of abstraction is why the word “magic” seems so appropriate.
It’s hard to describe it without resorting to abstractions. We know that what is really happening behind the scenes is your file being uploaded to a data center and associated with your iCloud account, and then downloaded to other devices that are associated with it. But that’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? It doesn’t quite describe the feeling, and the feeling is the reason we value this process to begin with.
Google is offering a similar experience for their Android smartphone users, and in some respects even one ups Apple. For instance, you can install an app to your Android device by simply clicking the Install button directly on Google Play web site and having it automatically download and install on your device.
With the launch of the Nexus 7 tablet Google also demonstrated much of the same behavior as with the iCloud, where your photos, music, books and so on appear on all your Android devices (or the ones running Jelly Bean or later at least) automatically.
While the above two examples describe what is just a sophisticated way of syncing your data over the internet, Chirp represents something quite a bit more interesting and novel. It literally uses sound to send links to data between devices, and it does sound like a bird chirping (albeit a somewhat robotic bird perhaps).
There are two things significant about Chirp.
First is the sheer simplicity to which it brings sharing data. Want to share the picture you just took with someone standing next to you? Just chirp it. What happens then is that the picture is uploaded to the cloud, URL generated, and the sound essentially “speaks” that URL to another Chirp enabled phone which “hears” it, downloads the picture and displays it. The experience is as if you’ve just chirped a picture to another phone.
The second significant thing about Chirp is the fact it uses sound to transmit the URL. It is significant in that it makes what is actually happening all the time when we use the magic of the internet so audible. Similar, but invisible and unheard, signals are being transmitted all the time, and it is this which enables the “magic”. Chirp makes us hear it, which makes for that odd “I’ve just heard an internet address in a different language” kind of feeling.
It also very much reminds me of R2D2, which itself, in fact, sounds as if it is chirping all the time. Need I say more?
AirDroid QR Login
I have to say this is one thing that makes me feel like I’m waving a magic wand instead of a smartphone. AirDroid is quite impressive in its own right. Install the AirDroid app, and it creates a local internet address through which you can connect to it and control your entire Android device using a desktop-like interface.
But it used to be that you had to type that numerical IP address into your web browser manually, and then put in the code to log in. A recent revision of AirDroid, however, supports QR Login. You simply open up web.airdroid.com, touch a button in the app and capture the QR code on the screen. Without even needing to press a shutter button the QR code is detected and the login is immediate.
In other words, this represents logging in without typing anything, and with just a single touch of a virtual button.
Google Now & Google Search (with voice actions)
With the recent announcement of Android Jelly Bean and the Google Now service at Google I/O conference the press has already been buzzing enough about it, and it does represent a great example of magical computing that takes good advantage of all three of the mentioned elements.
With Google Now and the Google Search with voice actions it feels like the Star Trek computer is a reality. It knows everything because the internet knows everything, and because it sees everywhere you are and much of everything you do. This means that you can ask it everything and it will have a likely correct answer, but also that it will tell you what you probably want to know when you want to know it.
While the current version of such technology might still struggle at delivering this promise completely, it is very clear where it’s heading, and that it will achieve this.
The most exciting, and the most significant thing about all of this is what we get when we combine it all, and other similar services, and look at the results. It is as if we are surrounding ourselves with an ever present intelligent force of our own making that fills in for every task that we feel is too routine to be done by a human.
Why manually connect a cable to transfer a file if the omnipresent cloud can do it for us? Why type or copy-paste the URL to a file if we can just let the device chirp it in its own language? Why do all of the arduous work of researching when you can simply ask the machine a question in natural language?
It almost feels like we are building a God. Omnipresence and omniscience are, after all, the typical characteristics ascribed to a deity. The internet as we have it today in some sense fits the bill. Maybe that’s why it feels so “magical”. When we abstract so much from ourselves in order to make our lives simpler, we are inevitably creating a kind of chasm between that which we understand because we want to understand it and that which is just magic spells to us because we don’t want or need to understand it. It “just works”, magically.