Making PCs Truly Personal: Visions of a Computer in Every Pocket

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Bill Gates shared a vision back when the personal computing era was just starting. As computers were getting smaller — from mainframes, minis, and eventually to desktops — he famously foreshadowed a future with “a computer on every desk and in every home…”

Of course, computing has evolved quite a bit since then and we are now in an era where computing devices are integrated into everyday life in many regions of the world. My father and Techland columnist Tim Bajarin advanced this idea a bit last week in his column laying out the potential of people soon having having a tablet in every room.

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But if Bill Gates’ original vision was that every desk in every home would have a computer, then the next major frontier will be bringing a computer to every person’s pocket.

Smartphone Are Computers

When I advance the idea of bringing a computer to every person’s pocket, I’m talking about smartphones. These are devices that my firm considers computers by all definitions. I know there’s a hot debate amongst many of my analyst colleagues as to whether or not devices like smartphones and tablets should be considered and tracked as computers. However, we believe they should for a range of reasons.

First of all, by definition, tablets and smartphones are computers. According to The Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of a computer is:

“A programmable, usually electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data.”

Another definition I found in the dictionary says:

“An electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program.”

Given the actual definition of a computer, it seems odd that tablets and smartphones wouldn’t be considered computers. Actually, a smartphone is perhaps an even more precise definition of a personal computer in that it is the one digital device that is highly personal and not shared. In fact, one could strongly argue that the smartphone is the ultimate personal computer.

Thinking about the highly personal nature of a smartphone is important because it opens up the discussion around what the future will look like when every person on the planet has a computer in his or her pocket.

Personal Computing Is Just Getting Started

It may sound somewhat odd to say that personal computing is just getting started, but I believe that is the case. Both desktops and notebooks, to a degree, are personal in the sense that they’re owned and personalized by a person, but in many cases they’re also shared devices. And while tablets might be even more personal, these devices are often shared as well.

However, since devices like smartphones usually have one just owner, they have the opportunity to become much more than just personalized — they could begin to learn, assist, and interact with us at entirely new levels.

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Today, Apple’s Siri is perhaps one of the better examples of this. Due to the processing power in the iPhone 4S, artificial intelligence becomes possible. Siri can be trained and taught certain things and because of this new interface paradigm, the iPhone 4S takes us one step closer to a truly personalized computing experience. Siri is an example of a machine learning interface, something that requires quite a bit of processing power. Having a pocket computer is key to advancing machine learning technologies, especially those of a highly personal nature. Even with the advancements that Apple has made with Siri, it’s still only scratching the surface.

In a column I wrote in July of last year, I went into depth about how these pocket computers, as they acquire more intelligence, will begin get to know intimate things about their owners. Things like preferences, personality nuances, habits (potentially good and bad), and a host of other personal information. Through the use of sensors, these devices will pick up and gather quite a bit of data about our actions as well as the world around us. Imagine being able to go to the zoo and holding your phone over an exhibit to get useful facts and interactive information about the particular animal you’re looking at. This type of technology, known as augmented reality, already exists but it still has a long way to go. However, it could ultimately become an incredibly valuable experience tied to pocket computers.

When you think about how smartphones are used today as personal assistants, communication tools, fitness trainers, information hubs and more, you can see that when these devices learn or understand more about us, they can become even more useful. Right now if I was standing in a store looking at a particular product, I would have to manually navigate my smartphone to find reviews of this product or see if it was on sale somewhere else. What if that entire process was automated for me, and as I was standing in the store looking at the product my phone pushed a notification to me alerting me of a better deal at another store just down the street?

In the future, these devices will become even more indispensable than they are today. We believe that smartphones are on track to become more than just communication technologies or web browsing tools or casual gaming/entertainment consoles. Indeed, they will become much more personal and will evolve into truly personal computing companions.

Bill Gates’ vision for a computer on every desktop was forward thinking at the time he made the statement. But the fact is that technology has evolved exponentially over the last 30 years and it seems clear to many now that Gates’ vision may have been too limited. We are now on track to have PCs on every desk, tablets in every room and smartphones in every pocket, thus taking the PC revolution full circle. Even though the PC industry is 30+ years old, the potential impact that smartphones will have on the way we use computing devices in the future shows that we are still in the early stages of making PCs truly personal.

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Ben Bajarin is the director of consumer-technology analysis and research at Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley.