This is the post in which I attempt to predict the future. A lot of what I say here may be proven wrong in the next decade or two, but since I do not posses any precognitive powers, that is to be expected. Some other stuff may be fairly controversial, but bear with me.
These are the final years of the desktop computer as we know it. This has been a forgone conclusion for several years now. The sales of laptops and tablets overtook those of desktops sometime around 2006 so this is not a new thing. I think I have posted this particular chart several times before and these numbers don’t lie:
Slowly but surely the public is turning their back on the venerable PC tower, and embracing the sleek and mobile notebooks, laptops and tablets. The only environments where the desktops still reign supreme are corporate cubicle farms, and basements of hard core gamers. Which is probably where computer manufacturers will focus in the next few years. Beige boxes for the office, and blinged out gamer machines for hobbyists. General purpose home PC is swiftly becoming a relic of the past and such machines will soon be hard to find. Unfortunately the corporate world and the gaming community are nowhere near being safe harbors.
The company I currently work for only owns two desktop computers. One is hooked up to a projector in the conference room, and the other one is stationed at the front desk. Everyone else has laptops. Those of us who are expected to work from the office (administrative staff, it geeks, etc..) have regular desks with large monitors and docking stations, but we are encouraged to take our machines home. Sometimes during big winter snowstorms we forward our office phones to our cells and all work from home. Of course this particular company was ahead of the curve – they have been using laptops for ages now because most of the employees work at the client locations and need computers that can be picked up and transported easily. More and more companies go that way and opt for laptop + docking station rather than a bulky desktop these days.
Gaming circles would have been a safe harbor if it wasn’t for the fact that most major game studios are moving away from PC as their primary platform and focusing on consoles instead. You can try to deny it, but it would be futile. You have seen the signs, and so did I. It is not coincidence that a lot of new games come out without exclusive PC features such as dedicated multiplayer servers. It is not coincidence why most new games look and play the way they do. Do you know why the New Vegas strip in Fallout was divided into 3 zones separated by loading screens? Because modern consoles did not have enough resources to render all the wandering NPC’s and blinkenlights. Most modern games are made for consoles first, and then ported to PC. Just a few short years ago, this was the other way around.
If you don’t believe me, just check the recent tech news and you will see all the signs. Just recently EA Games announced that PC Gamers are not welcome to their gigantic Battlefield 3 tournament. That does send a clear message, doesn’t it? I can’t say I like this trend, but I can’t deny it anymore. This is happening. Desktop gaming will become niche market for experimental artsy games, niche interests, competitive RTS stuff and mainstream MMO’s. All of which will not need beefed up hardware and will all be playable on mid-range laptops. Gaming PC will fade away into history.
Mainstream consoles will be soon to follow. I honestly believe we only have one, maybe two more console generations to look forward too. Why? Because console is an unwieldy box that needs to be hooked up to your TV with a mess of wires. It will stick out like a sore thumb in a world populated by tablets, smart phones and ultra-thin notebooks. In a world where most of your data lives in a cloud, and most of the work can be done with mobile devices, tying your gaming hobby to a static brick that can’t be picked up and moved to another room at a whim will be unacceptable.
They are not going to be alone though. Classic folding laptop will probably be on it’s way out too by then. For a few years now market analysts predicted that before the end of the decade, the tablets and mobile devices will overtake regular laptop sales. Here is a projection from 2010 that shows tablets trumping desktop sales, with laptops still in the lead:
Not everyone is that optimistic – some factions predict death of the laptop as we know it is inevitable. I think they are right, though I’m not sure about the timeline. I think most big hitters industry realize this, and take steps to prepare for this transition. We have already seen Apple building touch-friendly interfaces into OSX Lion. Microsoft is following with their Metro apps. The big shift is coming, and they don’t want to be swept away and forgotten.
Mobile hardware in smart phones and tablets is rapidly catching up with the low end PC/laptop hardware. All the new phones run dual core CPU’s and the clock speeds are rising with the Moore’s law as expected. Our mobiles can already do most of the stuff our desktops and laptops can. That gap is becoming smaller, and smaller. Here are the sure signs of laptop apocalypse:
- Apple releasing fully functional iOS version of XCode
- Microsoft redesigning office to use Metro interface exclusively
I can also see console-like gaming controllers being made for the iPad. Think about it – you already can hook these up to your big screen TV using a HDMI adapter cable. When these devices catch up to consoles spec-wise, they will swiftly replace them. Why? Because it will give you options – play on the couch in front of the big screen, or while sitting on a lawn chair in your back yard.
Somewhere along the way we will find some new emergent i/o paradigms for these new mobile devices. Perhaps eye tracking? Perhaps brainwave capture interface? Subvocalization? Galvanic skin response? Who knows. Chances are that in decade and a half, we will have a much better input mechanism for mobiles than multi-touch screens. I’m thinking HUD Glasses like in Halting State or contacts + wearables like in Rainbow’s End.
Needless to say, this is a very interesting time to live in. I will miss my gaming PC when it becomes obsolete, but I am excited to see how ubiquity of powerful mobile computing will reshape our lives. Do you agree with these predictions? What do you think will happen in the next 15-20 years? Let me know in the comments.