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The Future of Personal Computers and Technology Beyond 2015

Forget 2012, and the singularity. We’re going to try and envision the future of personal computers and technology beyond 2015.

To start off with this feature on future predictions, which will only deal with certainties, we would like to assure our readers that world is not ending in 2012. NASA, in fact had a news release dismissing claims about a phantom planet or galactic alignment that could bring the end of the world. “Even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible”, says a news release. “Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy, but that is an annual event of no consequence.”

However, it is difficult to gaze into a crystal ball, and project a grandiose vision of future technologies. Five-year plans are best left to socialist governments. However, given that we live in India, and only got 3G close to a decade after Japan got it, it should be fairly easy to predict the future of technology in India, by looking at what is happening around the world.

The future is the past

This is an industry where intellectual property, software and interface patents, and walled gardens help retain precarious monopolies. It’s hard not to be cynical, when you realize that we’re yet to see a $100 laptop or a Rs. 10,000 Android. Our bandwidth is capped at 10 GB, while countries like Finland have declared bandwidth a birthright.

Basically, the future of computing in India is the past in many developed countries.

Tablets and touch devices

Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, Tucker: The Man and his Dream tells the tragic story of a man who tried to take on the big auto companies in the US in the 1940s, but failed spectacularly. In mid- 2008, Michael Arrington wondered aloud why there wasn’t a $200 “MacBook Air-thin touch screen machine that runs Firefox and possibly Skype on top of a Linux kernel. It doesn’t exist today, and as far as we can tell no one is creating one.” Arrington later outlined his manifesto and philosophy behind the $200 CrunchPad. The design, specifications and software would be open source, allowing anyone to build one. The last prototype, sporting a 12-inch capacitive touchscreen could run Chrome OS and Windows 7, and was expected to be launched early 2010.

Sadly, in December, Arrington declared the project dead, spilling out the gory details of “greed, jealousy and miscommunication” on TechCrunch.com, which has over three million followers on its RSS feed. He fi led a lawsuit a fortnight later. The CrunchPad is now reincarnated as JooJoo, and is available for pre-order in the US for $499 from Fusion Garage. Hopefully, he will not give up, and follow his vision through to give us a $200 tablet by 2015.


At a recent round-table in Mumbai, NVIDIA’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang was in good spirits, reflecting that balloons in the movie Up wouldn’t brush a certain way, if it weren’t for NVIDIA’s contribution to graphics technology. None of the journalists present were willing to question that statement.

On that particular day, Intel had just agreed on an out-of-court settlement, to a lawsuit filed by AMD, for a sum of $1.25 billion. Jen-Hsun opined that when compared to the profits Intel made during the period of the lawsuit, it was the equivalent of paying for a parking ticket.

On display at the meeting were a wide variety of Tegra-based devices – e-book readers, smartphones, netbooks, and a large touch tablet. “The beauty of low-power design is that the form factor can be exquisite. The hi-def movie was streaming off a tiny Mobinova netbook. It can play hi-def movies for 12 hours, and gives week long battery life otherwise”, Jen-Hsun said.

The netbook has been attributed as an Asian innovation. Starting from the EEE PC, it has provided a low-power and low-cost computing option to a large section of society, and is currently available for $300 to $600. This platform has been dominated by Intel so far, who have also broadly defined the specifications and limitations of a device of this form factor, to prevent it from overlapping with the laptop market. Not everyone is happy with this particular arrangement.

Unlike Intel, ARM puts no limitations on the size or form of the products that are made using it. The Tegra, five years in the making is based on the ARM11 core. “We wanted to create a computer that is as good at 1/50th the power”, said Jen- Hsun Huang.

Crystal gazing into the future of handhelds/netbooks, or at least the processors that power them is not that difficult. The ARM 11 SOC (system on a chip), which powers a majority of Android devices and the original Apple iPhone, was first announced in 2003. In Anand Shimpi’s column titled Core Values, he explains that the Cortex A8, which debuted in 2005, took four years to be incorporated into a product, first on the iPhone 3GS and Palm Pre. It takes time, because ARM does not manufacture processors like AMD or Intel, but licenses its design to players like Texas Instruments, Samsung, Qualcomm, and NVIDIA, who make their own customized SoCs.

Processor cores are increasing by the day

We can safely predict a new product lineup called smartbooks this year, with emphasis on touch-based computing, and as a communications tool with data stored on a cloud. At less than Rs. 10,000, these will be cheaper than Intel’s Atom netbooks, or in a different usage model, likely to be bundled free with a wireless internet telecom service provider.

Tegra 2 is expected this year. Over a five year lifecycle, we are also very likely to see implementations of the Cortex A9, which will be produced by AMD’s spinoff Global Foundries. These will power not just touch-based smart phones and tablets, but netbooks and laptops as well. While these devices will offer an entirely new user experience compared to Windows PCs or Apple Macs, they will be able to run Google’s Chrome OS, and store data on a cloud. They will boot in seconds, always be connected – either via inbuilt 3G or wireless connectivity – and have a much longer battery life. And you don’t have to every worry about backing up your data.


In a TED talk about simplicity and design. NY Times columnist David Pogue mentions how Palm Inc. used to have an employee whose job designation was that of a “tap counter” – to ensure that all their applications achieve their desired outcome in three taps. Of late, everyone seems to have embraced this aesthetic. However, two companies, Swype and First Else, have come up with new interface designs this year that seem like the next evolutionary leap. In terms of speed and elegance, they leave the iPhone, the holy grail of UI design in the dust.

First Else has a convenient “thumb-based” interface

The First Else phone has been made by an Israeli design house and draws comparisons to sci-fi user interfaces seen in Minority Report, Fifth Element, and Terminator. The device does away with icons, and tries to adapt to you, instead of the other way around. One just slides the finger, letting the menu options fan out. The highlighted item gets selected once you lift your finger. The radial fan-like menu spreads out options based on thumb position, contacts are sorted by call frequency, First Else also claims to provide cross platform search, and backs up all your contacts and information on the cloud.

Swype, a Seattle-based company has launched a new way to type on touchscreen phones without ever lifting your finger. You just slide your finger across the letters at top speed. The software was created by the inventor of the T9 predictive typing system, and is able to predict what word you are typing by tracing your path and the letters that come under your slashes and swipes. In a comparison video on YouTube, the Swype-enabled Samsung Omnia II beats the iPhone by a healthy margin. The web site claims that one is able to achieve an unheard of speed of 40 words a minute on touch screen devices. For us Indians, this will probably mean entering our unique names into the dictionary by tapping traditionally, before we will be able to Swype. It’s releasing on Android phones next year.


Mobile Augmented Reality is already a reality in the Netherlands. An Amsterdam-based company, SPRXmobile, has come up with an application called Layar – a mobile augmented reality browser that currently works on the Android and the iPhone. It displays real time digital information on top of the reality that the mobile camera sees. While looking through the phone’s camera lens, a user can pan around the landscape, and look for houses for sale, restaurants, jobs, healthcare providers and ATMs.

In case you’re lost, use Layar

Here’s how it works: Starting up the Layar application automatically activates the camera. The embedded GPS automatically knows the location of the phone, and the compass determines in which direction the phone is facing. Each partner provides a set of location coordinates with relevant information, which forms a digital layer that is presented on the phone. “Eventually, the physical and the virtual worlds will become one,” said Raimo van der Klein, co-founder of SPRXmobile.

Layar derives information from a variety of location based services – the developer SPRXmobile has partnered with local banks, a realty web site, a social networking web site, an employment agency, and a healthcare provider to provide their location coordinates and other information. Technically, any mobile phone with a camera, GPS and compass should be able to do the same. The company has opened up its platform for developers, to enable third parties to create and publish digital layers within the Layar mobile application.

Greener pastures

Neal R. Armstrong, professor at the US-based University of Arizona, which does a lot of research on solar power said this about the world’s most popular music player: “You burn about a quarter of a pound of coal per charge of your lithium ion battery, and you generate about half a pound of CO2 per charge, per battery, per day.” Apparently the room got really silent after he said that.

Laptops will soon offer you three hours of battery life, some will give seven to ten, and others promise a week. Even if consumers aren’t interested in going green, it is likely that we will see increased adoption by people who use renewable energy to power their infrastructure. These will be consumers who will drive a shift in performance metrics and the benchmarks being used. Homes and offices that run on green or renewable energy would care very much about a monitor that uses 20 per cent less power than its contemporaries.

We are also likely to see more environmentally conscious components that will be free of mercury, arsenic, PVC and BFR. Some of the leading consumer electronics companies try to make products that are recyclable. Many of them collect a product after its lifecycle, and take care of its reuse and disposal.
Reduction in packaging

The gigahertz race pushed the power consumption of desktop processors to outrageous levels, but lately, power efficiency has been given the emphasis it deserves. To a fair extent, computer manufacturers have begun to close in on the gap between power and power efficiency by making their desktops more energy efficient when idle.

Ready for use

Energy consumption is coming down across the board and is not just relegated to the CPU powering your system. Google.org, a philanthropic branch of Google is developing PowerMeter, which taps into smart meters and helps track energy consumption through PCs and smartphones. The service will eventually be rolled out in India through Reliance who have partnered with them this year. According to Google’s Ed Lu, they aim to save a “socially relevant amount of energy” through these means.


Rumors of Symbian’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Nokia made an announcement recently that they would be working on only one Linux (Maemo) phone a year, so Symbian remains.

We are very excited about Fring, the unified mobile app that can be used to conduct video calls with other users on Skype using the phone’s Wi-Fi or 3G connection for free. “This is a two-way video call!” says an enthusiastic developer showing a demo of the application on YouTube. It’s the world’s first application to make mobile video calls over Internet protocol (IP). The company has a history of bringing free calls and Twitter over the Internet for phones, and Fring works with any kind of internet connection – 3G, Wi-Fi, GPRS, EDGE & WiMax.

“We have a responsibility to continue breaking the mobile- Internet barriers” said Avi Shechter, CEO of Fring.

Fring also supports iPhone/ iPod touch, Android, and Windows Mobile handsets, but will roll out similar features for these platforms at a later date. We wonder how it will work on them without a front facing camera. We are also looking forward to number portability, which will be rolled out this year in India. That should give consumers the freedom to opt out of an operator that has a “non-fringing service” plan.