From personal to pervasive

Of course, today's PC is a far more evolved machine than that which rolled out of IBM back in 1981, thereby legitimising an entirely new sector of the computer industry. There are now signals that the PC as we know it is reaching its limits in terms of being the preferred device for individual use.

Each year, the accounting and consulting firm Pricewaterhouse-Coopers publishes a Technology Forecast for the year ahead. In its 2000 edition it has cast even further than its normal 12-month horizon, to look at where computing technology is headed in the coming decade and beyond.

The advances it predicts point to a petaflop computer - capable of processing 10 million billion floating point operations each second - being available by the turn of the decade. Clearly, such enormous horsepower is not destined for a desktop, but the effects of that power will percolate through to the individual in terms of the computer applications which are available.

Imagine a computer so powerful that it can give very accurate weather forecasts, allowing picnickers to swap their destination on the fly as their in-car computer warns them that although it is expected to shower at Manly at 12.30 p.m., it is looking fine for Palm Beach. Imagine a computer able to process virtual environments in real time, allowing schoolchildren to explore ancient civilisations using voice commands or gestures.

As the applications become richer, so more people will want to access them, and they will be able to afford to do so thanks to the dawn of the handheld devices age.

The ensuing proliferation of computing devices, all connected wirelessly, will allow other, more mundane applications. For example, when someone climbs in the car and heads for home at the end of the day, the in-car computer will be programmed to signal its approach to the home electronics system so that the heater and lights are switched on, and the garage door rolls up as the car enters the drive.

It will still be the PC era, only this time the P will stand for pervasive rather than personal.

In an interview with Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems' co-founder and chief scientist, the PwC report quotes him thus: "We've now entered an era when we're moving beyond faster and faster versions of this one tired idea, the PC. Rather than using one bulky, extremely complicated, untrustworthy device, we're moving toward using a variety of simpler devices that we can carry with us and with which we can interface in more natural ways. Technology has advanced to the point where hardware and software are cheap enough that we can build these smaller, simpler devices that are more consumer friendly - more like a cell phone than say a PC - and more valuable to us in our daily lives."

But the personal computer is not going to be replaced; rather, it is going to be joined by other devices. This year, IDC forecasts that 131 million personal computers will be sold around the world - 16.5 per cent more than were sold last year. Although by comparison far fewer handheld computers will be sold this year, by 2003 IDC predicts that more than 35 million such computers will be sold - four times as many as were bought last year.

Initially, these smaller devices will be bought by the technocrats; those individuals who always succumb to the need to bristle with the latest technology. Like mobile phones before them, though, handhelds' technology eventually will penetrate more widely, and should start to help bridge the digital divide, which has disturbed sociologists who are concerned that the monetarily poor are also the information poor, and therefore further disadvantaged.

The great choice, which users of this emerging technology have yet to make, is how to harness all that information, computing and communications capability. It will be possible to enter virtual casinos and gamble online, or spend hours glued to interactive television. It might be possible to use the computing power to understand more about our solar system, or to more effectively understand our genetic makeup.

That the pervasive computing technology will arrive is inevitable; how it is employed is yet to be determined.

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