Podcast Audio | Posted by Phil Leigh on October 23, 2012
As William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
As a stock analyst dining alone at Rickey’s Hyatt House in Palo Alto one evening in 1975, I couldn’t ignore an animated conversation by two middle-aged men in the next booth with profound viewpoints on the future of computing. Since I shared their passion, like most any obsessed youth I rudely introduced myself and was graciously invited to join them.
They were from Bell Northern Research, which was the Bell Labs of Canada. One of them, Joe, was an outside consultant who essentially functioned as a gadfly. His job was to get the technical staff to consider radical ideas from outsiders. Two ideas dominated Joe’s discussions that evening: (1) ARPANET and (2) timesharing. At the time, Wozniak and Jobs were only starting to build Apple computers. Office workers didn’t sit in front of CRT screens because real-time computing was a rarity. Most office workers hardly related to the massive mainframe computers isolated in air-conditioned rooms with access restricted to a “priesthood” of operators. The “data processing centers” mostly prepared paychecks and accounting reports.
Joe’s enthusiasm for timesharing puzzled me because the concept had been kicked around for years, but didn’t seem to be progressing. He said ARPANET could change that and explained what it was. But I couldn’t understand how a Defense Department project designed to connect computers of different manufactures with packet switching – whatever that was – in order to minimize military vulnerabilities to a nuclear attack could transform the way my employer back on Wall Street used its IBM mainframe. However, I could sense that Joe had a proclivity for good new ideas. I determined to simply trust his judgment. He elaborated for over an hour. Later I spent a day with him in Ottawa, where the discourse went wider and deeper.
With a dial-up modem and a Netcom browser, in 1995 I got on the Internet for the first time. For me, it was the “second coming” of everything Joe discussed twenty years earlier. ARPANET was the predecessor of the Internet. I became an “Internet” stock analyst.
Joe was way ahead of his time on the value of the Internet. But timesharing still seemed to be lost in the weeds – until now.
The Post-PC Era is not strictly defined by the rise of mobile devices. It is equally defined by timesharing under a new moniker, to wit “cloud computing.”
PC sales are declining for two reasons. First, we are increasingly using mobile devices for new and limited applications characterized by less need for the processing and storage capacities of a PC. Second, office workers are starting to replace PCs with lower cost “thin clients” that access programs and computational power on a timesharing basis in a remote data center, or the Internet Cloud. Like Sun Microsystems and its “network computer” of fifteen years ago, others have advocated the concept. However, as evidenced by the accelerating decline in PC sales, it is presently an idea whose time has come. There’s no way to turn back the clock. All industry constituents must adjust to the future scenario.
First, the thirty-year old Intel architecture will be displaced to the Cloud. Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) chips will be used on the clients.
Second, essentially computing is returning to the highly centralized model in the halcyon era of IBM mainframes. The major difference is that our desktop and mobile screens will connect to data processing centers by timesharing with other clients.
Third, within a decade most white-collar workers will be using inexpensive tablets and thin clients to run remote applications through a browser.
Fourth, within five years road warriors will be using laptops or tablets with long battery lives and Flash memories instead of hard drives. Flash storage will be used chiefly to cache applications as they are running, whereas archival data will be stored in the Cloud.
Fifth, in a sense the “Post-PC Era” concept is limited to presently mature economies. The great majority of devices coming onto the Internet today in developing countries like China are smartphones and tablet computers. Most Chinese are unlikely to ever participate in the PC paradigm. Even in the USA today, grade school children won’t be indoctrinated into the PC environment. They will grow up in a Post PC world, which will have as much relevance for them as “Fibber Magee and Molly” radio shows do for me.
Thank you Joe Zelikovitz, wherever you are.