It's the beginning of the year, and we're already 1/10th into the 21st Century. This seems like a good time for predictions...
It's not easy to make technological predictions more than a few years into the future. Like science fiction, we can only extrapolate from what we have now. What we will have, as far as technology, 10 years from now, well... hasn't been invented yet. I'd like to do some of that inventing, if only theoretically...
I've Got the Power!
Here's an easy one: Smart phones are getting bigger, faster, and more powerful. Laptops are getting smaller, faster, and increasingly cumbersome. What's stopping them from being the same thing?
It's the power. You might think the difference between smartphones and laptops are the size of the screen and keyboard, but those factors are, for the most part, irrelevant. Screens can be made as small or as large as you wish, as can QWERTY keyboards. Soon, your smartphone will be able to "plug in" any I/O device you can dream up, including speakers, keyboards, microphones, and monitors. Most likely that connection will be wireless. When this happens, what you consider a phone today, will be more like tiny laptop you carry around with you wherever you go and you'll use whatever I/O devices that are available.
The main obstacle for this device irrelevance is the availability of portable power connections. Smartphones are getting more powerful, but the speed is limited by the processor's power consumption, not the size. That's why you can have 4 GHz processors on your home PC, but not on your smartphone (yet). Laptops support the faster processors, but only because they have bigger batteries.
There will be gradual innovations with battery storage that will their size and increase their energy storage capacity. This innovation will be slow coming. Given existing CPU technology, in order for your phone to be as powerful as your PC, you'll still have to plug in to some power outlet.
In the next few years, however, dynamic power CPUs will start to emerge. These will "sense" the existing power availability, and adjust their consumption/speed accordingly. While at the bistro, you may get 1-2 GHz. In the car, you can plug-in and get 2-3 GHz. At the home or office... zoom-zip-pow! Full power.
At that point there will be no difference in processing speed between your PC, laptop, and smartphone.
Wasn't it cool when your phone got a color LCD? Whoopee! Now your contact list could be displayed in 4 colors! That response was similar to what PC users experienced in the 1980's when we transitioned from monochrome monitors though CGA, EGA, VGA, XGA and on, and on, and on...
Today we don't need any more colors. We already have the capability to do photo-realistic displays in higher and higher resolutions. It's the size that matters now. Just as televisions went from 19 inch to 72 inch almost overnight, computer monitors grew in size. You don't want to sit at your desk and work on a spreadsheet with a 72 inch display two feet from your eye-glasses, but multiple monitors in sizes ranging from 15" to 32" are now the norm. Where will future-tech take this?
There are two paths innovation may take us. One path will lead to dynamically sizable displays. These will allow you to physically expand or reduce the size of the monitor you're looking at. Ultimately, you will be able to reduce the display to the 2x4 inch display you're used to on your current smartphone, then pull at the edges to make the same display as big as your three 32" multi-monitors at your desk. Same monitor, same resolution, the size is up to you. Here again, power availability will be a limiting factor, but resolution scalability is right around the corner.
The other path display resolution may take will make Imax seem passé. How about full horizon visibility? This can only be done if you fake your senses into thinking the horizon and the monitor are the same thing. Yeah, your computer display will be worn on your eye-glasses.
This technology is already available, although currently these glasses are the size of a motorcycle helmet and the resolution isn't as high as your current PC monitor. It will get better. Soon, you will be able to put on a pair of glasses not much different than reading glasses are today, and with the flip of a power switch transform your view into a 360 degree environment of applications, images and videos. Built in speakers and microphones are a given.
Our children's children will think it ridiculous that we ever sat in front of a little monitor to watch TV or movies. Their "heads-up" displays will enable them to walk through their movies in three dimensions.
What of the Software?
When the device you hookup to your phone/laptop/PC thingy becomes irrelevant, what will the software look like? Let's extrapolate from the ubiquitous MS Office...
In the realm of word processor/spreadsheet/data applications, we're about done with feature creep. Few ever use even half of the functionality built into MS Office. Innovations like the Ribbon and app-sharing are noteworthy, but not Earth-shattering. Furthermore, we've come to expect that our "work" will be available whether we're at Starbucks, the beach, or the office. That's not new.
Once again, software will have to keep pace with the hardware. If the displays are to be dynamic, so will the software need to "sense" what devices are available, and scale just as dynamically.
Can you imagine using MS Word on your 2"x4" smartphone display? You will. Soon, all software interfaces will be able to adjust according to size and display preferences. The available options in those interfaces will be up to you, and will also change based on past use. Software will know where you are, what you're doing, and how you did that task recently. How you interact with the options available to you will be as dynamic as your display.
Reality Bites (and chews, and swallows...)
Ok, so I've jumped ahead a decade or so. I've taken a few hypothetical steps into the near future. Why not take a walk around the block...
In the past I worked on software for manufacturing. My Xfactory software was fairly well received as a Manufacturing Execution System, and I also did a fair amount of work on what's called HMI Systems (Human Machine Interfaces).
The early versions of this type of software allowed plant operators to see a visual representation of real-world "live" equipment on their computer screens. This started out with simple stuff like a red button if the equipment was "off", and a green button if the equipment was "on". This evolved into a simple 2-dimensional representation of what that equipment actually looked like. A water tank with an open/close valve, kinda looked like a water tank on the computer screen. Animation was added to show the valve actually opening and closing. Today, that tank can be displayed in simulated 3 dimensions, almost photo realistically. Real-world equipment sends data to the computers that tell their current state/status and the monitors display them as they look. That's state of the art. Let's go for that walk.
Remember those glasses you can put on to walk into your children's children's movie in 3-dimensions? You will also be able to walk through a real-world manufacturing plant. You'll be able to fly through lines of robotic arms piecing together a variety of appliances in real-time, and see visually what each arm is making as it makes it. You'll be able to walk through the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant, and sink through the cement floor to view the radioactive uranium rods as they heat up and cool down. You'll also be able to take a lunch-break, and stroll through the coliseum in Rome... you pick the historical date.
You see, in this future, all devices that can communicate, will do so in an ever-increasing web of data. The visual representation of that data will be ever-increasingly realistic. You'll not get all the sensory input as if you were actually there... but close. Think of the walks you'll be able to take then.