My first post on Analog Digits will serve to set the stage and tone for this blog, as I have had a longtime fascination with the ineptitude of the "technology press", especially as it exists in mainstream media. The folks who are paid to cover the tech beat seem largely clueless when it comes to actually understanding any kind of objective reality regarding how and why people use specific forms of technology.
The Associated Press released a story about how PC sales are in decline in Japan, supposedly due to the continued proliferation of dedicated devices such as cell phones, video game consoles, camcorders and other vertical digital gear. The assumption is that the recent slowdown in the volume of new computer purchases is indicative of the upcoming demise of the desktop computer.
According to an IDC "analyst", Masahiro Katayama, it's game over for PCs.
"Consumers aren't impressed anymore with bigger or faster processors. That's not as exciting as a bigger TV," Katayama said. "And in Japan, kids now grow up using mobile phones, not PCs. The future of PCs isn't bright."
Here's my take on this: for the average consumer, the current generation of personal computers has reached a point where the speed is simply good enough for the kind of things they're like to do - cruise the web, word processing, digital photograph editing, listening to music, and anything else that falls under the umbrella of consumer applications. Folks who enjoy video games have long known that dedicated hardware circuitry - such as chipsets devoted to 3D rendering - are always going to provide a superior gaming experience than a PC, and the best games are typically released for dedicated gaming systems.
The notion that a mobile phone is somehow going to displace or replace a PC is patent nonsense, and for one simple reason - applications. People don't use computers, they use the applications that run on computers. Is there a possibility that Photoshop will one day run on a handheld device, and deliver all of the power and flexibility that can be achieved on the desktop? I don't think so. Screen real estate is already an issue for folks trying to do image editing on smaller laptop screens, and we're not even going to discuss the concept of video editing on anything smaller than a 15" display. Anyone who has ever spent time in Adobe After Effects knows that the best single addition to getting the most from that software, is a dedicated display for the timeline window (and folks involved in the days of creating interactive multimedia with VideoWorks/Director probably remember the joy they felt when they saw the Score window on a separate monitor for the very first time). The power that can be put into a handheld device is constrained by scale, and this means that for the foreseeable future, we're not going to have applications on mobile devices that can vaguely match their desktop counterparts.
All of these cool miniaturized gadgets are great, but let's remember that they are all designed using CAD software, on the fastest desktop machines money can buy. If you create music, spend time rendering complex 3D animated sequences, edit and create HD video or build websites from scratch, you already know that there will never be enough power in that CPU to truly make you feel satisfied and complete. You already need a faster machine, and it's quite likely that you'll tap that next machine out within a year, after laying down 15 tracks with Logic Studio and the Sculpture synthesizer. You freeze tracks all day long, and it makes you wonder when they'll be able to put a 20 core chip in your desktop without emptying out your bank account. Musicians want more tracks, more inserts, more instances of digital delays, reverbs and instruments. There is never enough processing power for making music.
The world needs producers as much, if not more, than consumers. Someone has to write, orchestrate and record all that music that you download from iTunes. Someone is busy right now, as you read these words, coming up with the next 3D animated creature that will make you drop $10 on a movie ticket and another $10 on popcorn and a drink (and ultimately, another $20 on the DVD). The next great miracle drug that will save your life one day, is going to be the result of great minds using powerful computers to model the molecular bonds and interactions that make up a specific compound that will heal the sick cells in your body. Medical researchers may use cel phones to talk to their peers, but they rely on their computers to sift through the CAT scans and MRIs images.
The great promise of technology is that we can all take charge of our destinies, and become active producers instead of passive consumers. Many years ago, Alvin Toffler came up with the idea of the prosumer, which has now come true to a good degree. The principle idea behind "Web 2.0" is that the content of a site is generated by the actual community, creating a productive, positive feedback loop. The loop is essential in a healthy technology ecosystem - the producers drive the innovations, and the consumers provide a venue in which the usefulness and potential success of said innovations can be judged by the marketplace.
The consumer world is indeed ruled by an internal set of assumptions and parameters that are different from the realm of the producer. Regardless, it's the producers who will guide the future, with the consumers falling into line based on the marketing manipulations that create the desire for products that will make them happy (or dimply distract them for a few moments). I'm not really happy about this particular state of affairs, and deep down inside, I want people to realize that there's an amazing array of opportunities for them to express their creativity with the truly awesome power of the applications which exist on desktop computers. In future blog entries, I'll be writing about many of these applications, and hopefully, anyone reading about Groboto on their iPhone will run home and download it for use on their iMac. Should we set our sights for a future where we'll be able to use fully-loaded applications on handheld devices? Sure, but that will require an entirely new type of display technology that looks like nothing we have today, as well as input devices which tap directly into our minds. None of this is likely in the near future. Someday, possibly, but not soon. And by that time, the amount of sheer power that will live on a desktop, well, now there's a compelling thought: perhaps we'll have an operating system that watches us, learns about how we work, and anticipates what we'll be doing in the next minute, or next hour, and filters out everything that's in the way. Most of the power of your computer lies dormant at any given moment - it'll be interesting to see how that unused power is put to work, behind the scenes, to make your computer truly easier to use.
The desktop computer is here to stay. It's an infinitely configurable, highly flexible, insanely customizable symbolic manipulation device, capable of blending together all relevant forms of human communications media. A mobile phone might let you listen to music and watch television, but if you want to actually make the media being consumed by the masses, you'll need the real deal, the desktop computer. Accept no substitutes.