The Future is Beyond Cloud Computing
Why do I have a feeling that Ray Ozzie's vision of a "Post-PC" world is nothing new. I've read it expecting something different, and all I got was an inspirational speech about how "continuous services" and cloud computing instead of device-centered computing is the future. It's a bit baffling to see some people treat this as if it was some great new vision, when it's something that various techie "visionaries" have been talking about for over a year.
It's also somewhat baffling to see people look at these visions in disbelief and say how it will take decades for this world to come about, yet it would appear to me that we're almost there. So many applications are already available online. Those applications for which most people use computers the most are all online now, and you need no more than a tablet to access them. Most people in fact no longer need anything more than a TV, perhaps a console, and a tablet for their digital life to be complete. No more PCs, barely even laptops.
So it seems to me that this envisioning of a future in which devices are thin clients to cloud based applications and services is envisioning a part of what is happening today, and the very near-term future that is whizzing by us at breakneck speed. Perhaps this is why Microsoft has been so late with a lot of the new trends in the past. They see what's already pretty much a done deal around them, proclaim this as the future and then proceed to work their way towards relevance in it. By the time they're done adapting to this semi-present that is to them "the future", the present and the future have already moved on, leaving Microsoft, once again, behind.
Just to be sure, PC is not dead yet, and not everything a PC can do can be done just as well with cloud based applications, but what can't be done is more of a long tail than the core of the trend. Most of what people do with computers anyway now *can* be done in the cloud, so the bulk of the transition is already done. In other words, PC isn't dead only if you're a PC gamer or a creative professional relying on such software as Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, various music production software etc., or in other words, you're more than just a digital consumer.
So if this amazing new "future" of cloud computing is already there, or the core of it at least, this means that the real future, the real next big thing, has to be something else. To talk about cloud computing as the future and call yourself a visionary doesn't really impress me. What would impress me is talking about the future beyond cloud computing, that great big unknown.
A Post-Cloud World
Let's talk about the post-cloud world. It would appear that the cloud computing drama consistently de-emphasizes one particular yet continuous trend in the world of computing; the constant increase in power per watt and per a square centimeter of a device. This is perhaps understandable when we consider the fact that some time ago mobile phones and tablets weren't even as capable of acting as proper thin clients as they are today. Many didn't even have Wi-Fi capabilities or enough power to reliably run various advanced web applications.
But that threshold has been passed, and it is now possible to cram more and more computing power into a smartphone, tablet, let alone a laptop than is necessary for it to act as a mere thin client to the cloud. If we are to believe the cloud computing visionaries then this extra power they are getting is an unnecessary excess. According to them, the increase in power no longer matters, at least not for consumer devices, and isn't even necessary anymore.
I'm not sure that everyone will be at peace with such a prediction, however, especially when we step back and look at what this means in the bigger picture that spans both the consumers and providers of technology. It means consumers are essentially being thrown cheap bits of technology that is completely and utterly dependent on an outside source for all of its useful applications. An ideal thin client is one that is essentially bricked the moment you don't have Internet access or the services you get your applications and data storage from go offline.
Is this really what consumers want? Or is this just a dream of businesses interested in making their users so dependent on them? Their "vision" seems like an invention of the future that would be so damn lucrative for them that it just has to happen.
There is a chance that the "consumer" wont keep things that way for long. Cloud computing may be something that is being adopted en-masse today or perhaps even in the very near future because it is what currently defines convenience and ease of use. However, to get back to that increasing amount of power you can cram into a single smartphone, the convenience of "thick clients", devices with all the computing power you need built right in, may start competing with the convenience of cloud computing.
The only reason why cloud computing is more convenient today is because all of the administration necessary to maintain these applications on your own devices is too complex, but with more power and capability being available to appliance-like devices this might actually start to change.
Setting up your own internet-connected home server serving storage and applications to you wherever you go might become as easy as plugging in the box and selecting what apps you want to serve. At that point you become your own cloud, and the Internet is just an intermediary.
But that's not all. Remember the long tail of things which haven't quite transferred to the cloud yet and may be the slowest to transition; things like graphics design, music production and even PC gaming? What if you can cram enough computing power into a single smartphone or a tablet to be able to do all of these things? Your smartphone or tablet becomes your workstation, except this time you can take it with you anywhere you want to do your work, which is exactly the marketing pitch of cloud computing, but without cloud computing.
Input technologies will likely be invented to make it possible to use these mini supercomputers even without the need of bulky peripherals like keyboards and mice, technologies like gesture recognition, eye tracking, retina projectors and even brain-computer interfaces. Meanwhile, if you can cram that much power into a smartphone you can cram even more into a laptop which already comes with efficient input methods (keyboard + multitouch pad).
So perhaps when business leaders envision the future they should take into account all of the trends, not just those which seem inclined to disempower their customers by making them more dependent on their business. Otherwise they fall into the trap of building hype over a single concept while ignoring everything else, which is a good recipe for the creation of fads.
Perhaps when we envision the future we should instead think of what empowers everyone the most while compromising the least both in terms of cost or convenience and in terms of customer empowerment. It is about giving everyone what they really want, without compromise, and making sure nobody is lacking in anything. Perhaps cloud computing is an interesting intermediate step towards this cheap pervasive and all-encompassing computing ability, but as these "thin clients" become so powerful that they can serve you without their master in the clouds, that may change.
This goes back to a pendulum between thin and thick clients that I talked about before. In the history of computing this is what seemed to have been happening repeatedly. First we had mainframes and terminals as thin clients, then we had PCs which were both in one (thick), and then we are now going back to terminals vs. mainframes in form of "cloud services". Guess what's the next step? Yep, your smartphone or a tablet becomes what your PC used to be, except much more powerful.