phone vs. tablet vs. laptop vs. desktop vs. server

It seems that Microsoft’s all-in-one strategy on support for different devices is still progressing. Windows 8 will have interfaces for both the desktop and touchscreen devices. This is akin to how Windows Media Center works. This model must have an unusual level of attraction to Microsoft due to the large base of existing applications, but it makes assumption that you’d want to use all the applications on all the devices, if only you could — that may turn out not to be right.

Microsoft has for years tried to get into mobile devices. Here you see Bill Gates really uncomfortable with the notion that Apple has succeeded more than Microsoft in this space. He is not wrong, since for a time Windows phones and tablets were the only ones out there, while Apple’s Newton was forgotten memory. Those devices either used a slightly modified Windows OS or one that copied all of its metaphors. The latest Windows phones are an exception, but with Windows 8, it will no longer be. It cannot be disputed that there are important applications that do not exist on mobile devices (currently), and therefore mobile devices are not complete (currently). So people argue that mobile devices will be full-fledged computers or desktops will not die. The idea of a dual interface seems to be aimed in this direction. However, a third possibility exists. Applications, after all, merely solve real life problems. They are not themselves holy. If there were a different way of accomplishing the same things, the applications could be replaced. One could argue that data is the rather more holy object. Back to this later.

While devices are converging, it becomes a question of what the hardware distribution of the future will look like, and how functions will be partitioned among them. In this video, Steve Jobs posits a rather linear, functional view of computing history, where things moved from desktops to more mobile devices as usage functions evolved from scientific and office work to entertainment and socializing. Bill Gates posits a more encompassing and parasitic view, seeing computing power spreading to colonize all niches, a niche for each device, none really going away. To him, the kind of space or niche makes a difference, like whether a device fits in a pocket or not.

What they are both getting at is that there are constraints — some hardware, some social convention — that limit what functions can be used where. Because if it were at all possible, why wouldn’t one want all functions on all devices? But there are power, weight, screen-size, and input device constraints that are fundamental. Given that, you can’t possibly have all applications run in all devices.

To address this, one way is to have all devices become one device — a hardware solution along with its companion software like Windows 8. This “classic” solution has existed quite a while now, e.g. convertible laptops, some better than others. The problem is in both hardware and software. The equivalent tethered power and heavy-case computing power cannot be had with mobility at any given time, even though mobile devices are more powerful than computers of even a few years ago. And the software interface is also different — requiring a stylus for mouse-like precision (although I like the stylus, it’s one more thing to hold). With Windows 8, the interface problem maybe is solved, but the hardware problem remains. There is talk of some dual-part computer where you can remove a light (both weight and CPU power) piece of it. The non-mobile base of such a computer would have additional processing capabilities as well as keyboard and mouse like a standard docking station. The hardware design for this though, would be enormously complicated if it were to be efficient. For example, two processors separated a great physical distance, does not make for good communication speed. Either that, or when the light piece is docked, its own capabilities are totally disabled for its trivial contribution to total computing power. This would be a waste of hardware and the cost would be even greater than a tablet and a separate non-mobile computer combined.

So what about another way. Forget combining all devices into one device — in hardware. Why not have all these devices, and even let them run all their vastly different applications and interfaces at vastly different processing capabilities, but combine them at the level of data? Given the constraints of the devices, people will write any and all applications that support functions natural to them — we need not worry about that. We only care that these applications can access a common set of data and have seamless sync’ing between them. This also has a buzzword already, it’s called cloud computing. Yet I don’t think it’s about migrating applications to the cloud — not so, although some of that will take place, for “light” applications (light on bandwidth and computation). The full power of each device though, is going to harnessed, I am sure of that. So the best gains from the cloud is data sync’ing. This is a problem not merely of sync’ing, but of a method to record data in a way that is universally available regardless of software or hardware platform. It’s not just document data, but things like preferences, and program states. And I’m not talking about applications that are simple and entertainment-like or applications already on the web for which devices are only terminals. Furthermore, this “cloud” doesn’t even need to be an internet company, it can be managed among the devices themselves or by any mostly-on device that is at a common locus of interaction, like a “cloud server” or some such in the home. I think this is the more likely future, because it makes more sense.

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