The other day Craig Mundie, head of Microsoft Research, said “There will be a successor to the desktop; it will be the room.”
I think things are headed in exactly the opposite direction. Everything that has happened with computing and telephony in the last fifteen years has pointed away from engaging in these activities in a fixed location. Mobile computing is just the latest part of the overall trend, but it will be what finally eliminates the personal desktop computer once and for all.
Consider what effect the web had on the way people use computers. Back in the dark ages (aka the 1980s) if you wanted to do a thing on a computer you bought a disc with a piece of software then used that software to generate whatever data you needed and stored that data on a second disc. If you were fortunate enough to be using software that was widely distributed (e.g. WordPerfect) you could take the data with you and access it on another computer. Unfortunately floppies were so small that only a dozen documents would fit on them, which meant that you generally had to make a conscious choice about which data to bring.
In the early days of the consumer web email access was the same way. You could technically log into your POP3 account from anywhere, but it was really designed to be used from a single computer with all your contacts, old messages, etc. on it. The rise of Hotmail and other web-based email packages changed all of that. Suddenly you had access to your email from everywhere. Server-based email vendors like Microsoft eventually got on board and now even corporate email is (or can be) web based.
No-install software on the web still hasn’t turned out to be as all-encompasing as some people are predicting, which has given rise to another way people take it with them: the laptop. What percentage of people under thirty use a laptop as their primary personal computer? Two of my teeneaged nephews got laptops for christmas… I suspect they will never own their own desktops. As more applications become feasible on the web netbooks are cropping up to replace laptops.
These days the only people still buying desktops are corporations (because they’re cheaper and frankly work better when you’re going to force the user to sit in the same place for 40 hours a week anyway) and gamers (because they’re more powerful.) Gamers are already moving to laptops in a big way, and I expect the business world will follow within the next ten years.
Perhaps the cloud-based services (like web email, in-browse productivity apps, etc.) would be well served by the computer as a room, but web browsing isn’t as universal as it used to be.. People tend to get uncomfortable when they don’t have their favorite browser, their set of plugins, and their bookmarks surrounding their web experience. It feel like even web browsing is a pretty personal experience.
What do you think? Do you see a place for these big computing experiences?