The future for tech is fragmentation

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (965 Words)

Our rampantly consumerist world has many facets, pros and cons to it, but one thing has so far been perceived as a universal constant - the quest for the ’next big thing’. That one product, or class of product, that every man, woman and small furry creature from Alpha Centauri wants to get their hands on. In the technology world, analysts have long since been riding the gravy train of purporting to be able to peer sagely into this murky future in order to extract those world-changing gems that everyone would be invested in.

I don’t think this is the case anymore, at least not to the extent that one product or product category can be seen as ’the future’. In much the same way as in days of yore there were only a small handful of TV channels that everyone watched, compared to now where everyone has a million channels plus the Internet to cater for their media absorption needs, I think the technology needs of the general public can no longer be stuffed into one universal pigeon-hole as has happened in the past.

Up until recently, everyone felt they needed a PC of some sort, and most of them also felt they needed to use Windows because that’s what they used at work and also what most PC vendors pre-loaded their machines with. Cue a huge homogenous mass of people on the same technology - exactly the sort of ’next big thing’ that has been common over the last 20 years.

But, as computing resources get smaller and more connected, people are realising that they don’t necessarily need all the things a PC can do, all the time. Things we would traditionally consider to be ‘computing devices’ are fragmenting along functional lines in much the same way as household devices have always been this way - your toaster, your microwave, your TV. The idea that there needs to be a single device that has the ability to do everything is something that increasingly only technophiles will hold on to, because specialism almost always means an improvement in the user experience for the given functional subset. Think about it - sure, you could build a device for the home that let you wash dishes, watch TV and toast bread all in one package - but why would you? The toaster works well doing what it does, taking up only the space it needs to, while the dishwasher and TV are specialised for their tasks too. Plus, you can use them simultaneously for different things. Sure, household devices have a common medium - plumbing, electricity etc - but they’re inherently separate, and all the better for it.

Computing devices are really no different. Over the last 20 years we’ve been conditioned to expect that we all need a common beige box that does everything anyone could possibly need, but in fact our lifestyles don’t agree with that at all. The common medium of the Internet is ubiquitous, but apart from that we all want to do different things with technology, and even within our own lives we need different things in different circumstances. When I want to do intensive tasks like writing code or editing video, I want a full keyboard, a hi-res screen and a lot of processing power. But when I’m just checking my email on the go, I want something small, portable with a good battery life, and I’m willing to sacrifice powerful CPUs, large screens, and full keyboards for that. If I’m on the sofa and want to check a website or read an article, a pad-style device would work best for that - bigger than a phone, but more casual and form-friendly than a laptop. Even in the context of a single user, our lives are not geared to single devices that do everything, and in fact there are hard limits that prevent any one device, even the best smartphone in the world, from fulfilling this - even if you could shoehorn the power into a smartphone, you’ll never replicate the full keyboard or screen short of things seen only in Inspector Gadget. So it’s not at all surprising that now that technology is allowing these devices to morph into more functionally specific roles, people are snapping them up - much to the horror of people that have a vested interest in the PC being the future of everything of course.

Cloud computing may be the only fashionable technology that cuts across all of this (hence why everyone is so scared of Google), but even then, people (particularly businesses) are just not ready to give away control of all their data just yet, and roaming data charges - since you’re not always near a free Wifi spot - are still nowhere near the place they need to be at for people to be able to rely on non-local storage entirely. So again, cloud computing is going to co-exist in the overall technology soup with everything else.

I think the next few years are going to be more interesting in technology than the last 20 have been by quite a long way, simply because of the way it’s going to blend into our lives better. Standard office bureaucracies may well be locked into the standard Microsoft PC / Server model for quite a while yet, and power users (me included) are still going to be buying PCs and laptops in addition to specific devices, but outside of that, things are set for major change in multiple directions. I like that - technology, like fashion, should be a personal choice, tailored to your lifestyle, varied and multidimensional depending on your frequently changing environment and needs. The one-size-fits-all model is dead, and I don’t think many outside of Redmond will mourn its passing.