Thursday, March 27, 2008

The future of personal computers

I'm rarely sure whether John C. Dvorak is deliberately controversial, or whether he really does believe the things he says.

His latest post is titled 'The iPhone Is No Desktop'.

I don't usually rise to people like him, but the article is so wrong on so many levels that I'm going to answer it as a cathartic exercise.

His main argument is that 'People are willing to make a device that you can drop in the toilet or leave in a taxi cab the next desktop computing platform. Ridiculous.'

Firstly, devices like the iPhone are not 'the next desktop computing platform', they are a convergent evolution of technology that many people find extremely convenient. Most people don't do a lot of photo-editing, word-processing, presentations or spreadsheets. But they do like communicating with their friends, taking pictures and movies, watching movie trailers, listening to music and keeping track of their social schedules and email.

And, yes, these devices can be damaged and/or lost. Which can be temporarily inconvenient, but only becomes a major problem if passwords aren't used and data isn't regularly backed up.

Dvorak then goes on to criticise the 'smaller-is-better' trend.

'I've always subscribed to the notion that smaller is superior - until recently, when I saw that smaller is actually becoming a problem...

'people sit at their office desks with the laptop in front of them and squint at the relatively small screen and go blind. They drag the machine everywhere, and if it gets lost or broken, they're toast, since they never perform any kind of backup... Even if people do back up, though, they're likely still SOL since the restore function typically doesn't work well when a new machine is involved.'

Once again, this makes so many assumptions that the argument is laughable. It's not a criticism of the technology, it is a criticism of the people operating the technology. If you use technology, you have to learn how to look after it. And, as with cars, the technology will also become more and more idiot-proof as the manufacturers fight for market share. Apple's Time Machine is an excellent example of this.

Dvorak then goes on to list why a desktop computer is best...

1) Easier to upgrade
2) More versatile displays
3) More powerful, with multiple drive bays
4) Cheaper
5) Harder to steal
6) Wealth of input devices (keyboards and mice)
7) Easier to type on
8) Easier to fix
9) Unlimited storage
10) Harder to steal

and then gives one reason why a laptop is better... Portability. To give him his due he does say...

'I'm not denying that the trend in computing is moving away from the desktop machine.'

but then he continues with...

'I use laptops when I travel, and that's that. I'm not dragging a laptop to work and home and back again, with the thing bouncing around in the car. That's crazy. If I want my data to be that portable, I'll load it on my Corsair 32GB thumb drive, and that will be that.'

Once again, Dvorak misses the point of convergence. Most people don't want their data on two, three or four different machines. People know from bitter experience that this leads to confusion. Has anyone tried maintaining an iTunes collection across two computers? All my experiences of it have ended in tears. And although I'm very pleased with the way my .Mac account keeps my laptop, desktop, iPod and mobile phone's calendar and contacts synchronised, it's not perfect.

The iPhone (and its competitors) will not kill the desktop computer, or the laptop. But the marketshare of the ultra-portable devices will grow. And the sooner someone provides a quick, easy and reasonably-priced way to makes sure that these devices are automatically and intelligently backed up to secure/remote servers, the faster this will happen.


Mike Peter Reed said...

If a version of the iPhone or Touch was released that had mini-DVI for a bigger screen and USB for a keyboard ... would it be a desktop computer, a Sun terminal knock-off, a convergent device or a divergent device?

It would rock, for sure. And I'd pony up for one at that point.

It won't be long before we see RAID-1 or even RAID-10 flash/SSD, so at least integrity of local data could be reasonably assured (toilet drops being an exception)

If it is long before we see this device - heck, I know I should've patented it already!

All "i" products are interim - Steve convinced me of that after he dropped his iCEO status to become CEO.

Mr Bill said...

I think that the smaller is better trend has to end at some point and this has to do with the ability to input stuff and also how we receive stuff (screen size and resolution). I know from experience that a Nokia E65 screen is fine for all my notes and calendar and names and addresses but it isn't good enough to watch much more than a movie trailer. To watch a proper movie I need at least a 15" laptop screen. This is the same for any application I use - Word, Quark Xpress, InDesign, Photoshop etc - all of them need screen real estate.

However, regarding the storage medium - I think it would be nice to have a single stick that I carried around and could plug into a computer - Windows or Mac that would hold all my info and files and would be fast enough to use as a Hard drive and as reliable as a hard drive. A 200Gb USB stick is not available - yet, and it isn't fast enough, yet. When there is a medium fast enough and the computers can all talk to each other nicely, I'll be happy to use a fast removable media device for all my documents etc. Then I can use my desktop at home, remove my 200gb stick and place it in my iPhone or similar and travel to/from work (oh yes - and take really nice sized pictures with the decent lens that someone needs to put in a phone) and then when I get to work, I can take the 200Gb stick and shove it in whatever my employer has deemed is a suitable desktop computer (who makes these decisions?) - which will allow me to carry on with all my files and documents as I happily go through my day.

Oh yes - and each time I insert the 200Gb stick, it will sync with a server to make sure all my files are backed up.

Here's to the future!

Not sure if the above is relevant, just felt like a rant.

brett jordan said...

Yes, the 'too-small' thing is an issue when it comes to screens and keyboards... i wonder whether projector technology will ever replace the lcd screen, both for reading, and maybe even to provide virtual input devices.

The portable data idea is a good one, however, I do wonder how long it will be before pervasive internet access means that we leave most of our stuff on a server, and access it remotely.