Computing Inefficiencies and the Cloud

Have you ever thought how inefficient today’s computing world really is? Inefficient, you say? I thought computers have made us more efficient! Well, yes, computers have made us more efficient with the tasks we use them for, but the entire computing infrastructure itself is largely inefficient. But hold on, this isn’t a criticism. It is simply a realization that advancements in technology are opening up opportunities to compute more efficiently. Take personal computers, for example.

There are unquestionably billions of personal computers all over the world. Each of these computers has a processor, maybe a separate graphics processor, RAM, and a hard drive. How often do you think these processors, and this RAM, and these hard drives are fully utilized? As a percentage of each computer’s life, either turned on or off, I’m sure it could be calculated that the utilization rate of the full capability of this collective network of machines is pretty small (I have no idea how small, but you know, small). That’s a lot of excess capacity, a lot of waste.

Now imagine if you could share that excess capacity. Or imagine if the excess capacity didn’t exist in the first place. This is where cloud computing comes in. Eventually, as the Internet becomes more robust, with more consistently fast connection speeds and greater stability, I think we’ll see a tremendous boom in cloud computing and an offsetting drop in “personal” computing. This is on the whole, not in every instance.

For example, with the cloud we could eliminate much of the excess hard drive capacity currently sitting on individual computers. It really doesn’t make sense to have our own personal hard drives. It would be more efficient to have a network of shared drives, just enough to accommodate the collective demand for storage space, no excess, other than for redundancy. Similarly, instead of having a powerful processor on each machine, why not do all of the computing in the cloud and simply send the results to our screens? If the cloud connection is fast enough, we’d never know the difference between local or teleprocessing.

Ultimately, the cloud will do all of these things and more, reducing, if not eliminating, the excess computing capacity that currently exists. It will take time, and there will be bumps along the way, but at some point cloud computing will be as ubiquitous as the personal computing we know today and we won’t know the difference between the two.

Personal Computers: Dead or Transforming?

Talk about the death of the personal computer (the PC) has been all the rage lately. Tablets are taking over the world, the media says. Just look at the decline in PC shipments. That’s all the proof you need. Oh, you silly click-bait-driven tech writers. The PC isn’t dead. The “PC” will never die. But its form factor is certainly changing.

When personal computers came into existence the “desktop” form factor was all that was available. Even if someone had wanted a powerful, lightweight, portable machine (read a laptop), the parts were just too big to build such a thing. But technology has advanced, as it always seems to, and the bits and pieces that comprise a computer have become smaller and smaller, and more and more powerful, to the point where fitting all of that “desktop” computing horsepower into a little, portable, folding case has become commonplace. We now have laptops that weigh less than a couple of pounds and are almost thin enough to slice sandwich meats. Yet the traditional desktop lives on.

And now we are seeing a similar form factor shift with tablets. Why buy a desktop or a laptop when you can get a tablet, or a smartphone, some would argue? Tablets will force the extinction of desktops and laptops. Well, maybe. But not in the way you might think.

What most people really mean when they say tablets will replace PCs is that today’s limited-functionality tablet operating systems (i.e. iOS and Android), running on a tablet form factor, will replace the full powered desktop/laptop operating systems (i.e. Windows and Mac OS) running on desktops and laptops. But the form factor is largely irrelevant. With the right hardware, iOS and Android can be installed on a desktop or laptop instead of a tablet. Conversely, a full powered OS (again, Windows or Mac OS), with the right hardware, can be installed on desktops, laptops, or tablets. In fact, Windows 8 was developed to handle these types of diverse device installations. My guess is Mac OS will at some point also incorporate much of the finger-friendly functionality of iOS and iOS will cease to exist.

The reason some believe tablet OSes will win the operating system battle is that, for many people, today’s tablets offer enough computing power and functionality to do all the things they do with computers. They check email, surf the web, watch videos, etc. They consume content. They don’t need an office suite, or a software development package, or the ability to edit large photo and video files. They just need the basics. These consumers will likely never again buy a “PC” or at the very least will delay purchasing a new PC until the current machine is on its last leg.

But what about everyone else, those that produce content as well as consume it? These users will¬†always need a full powered OS, with the variable being the device on which the OS is installed. If I’m creating content, say a movie, or a video game, or an architectural blueprint, I’ll likely spend much of my time sitting at a desk. I’ll probably want a large screen, with a keyboard, and a mouse or some other input device. In this case, the size and shape of the computing box is largely irrelevant and driven by aesthetics. It could be the size of today’s desktops, the size of a smartphone, or driven by the cloud. As long as the computing power I need is there, looks (and location) are a personal preference. If I’m a mobile worker, I’ll either want a laptop, or a laptop/tablet hybrid, or a pure tablet. Regardless of the device choice, I still need the full power of a “desktop” OS. Of course, there are additional hybrid use situations, but I won’t go into every possibility.¬†So it isn’t that PCs are going away, it’s just that the devices on which the “PC” operating systems are installed are changing.

All that said, given advances in hardware, particularly CPU/GPU efficiencies and battery technology, it will one day be rather silly to have different OSes designed for different use cases. Honestly, we are pretty much there with Windows 8. If you could get 24 hours of battery life out of your tablet, running a full OS, that is just as finger friendly to use as today’s simplified tablet OSes, wouldn’t you prefer a full powered OS to a watered-down tablet OS? My guess is most people would say yes.

No, the PC isn’t dying, rather PC operating systems are evolving to be touch friendly and the devices on which these OSes are installed are changing. One day there will be no distinction between a “PC” and a tablet, because convergence will bring them together seamlessly.