The Future of Personal Computing: Cloud-Connected Screens Everywhere

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Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday on Techland.

We are witnessing the greatest shakeup in the world of computing that has ever taken place.

From a historical perspective, we started out with mainframes, moved on to mini-computers and in the early ’80s entered the era of the personal computer. Over a period of about 50 years, these three kinds of devices defined what computing was all about.

But the conventional wisdom that drove these three eras of computing, which moved us from distributed computing to personal computing, is being shaken at its core as tablets and smartphones take center stage and are poised to redefine computing again.

But instead of evolving the concept of personal computing, these two form factors are actually ushering in a new era of “personalized computing.” And they’re taking the industry from selling hundreds of millions of computing devices a year to now selling over 1 billion annually.

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

As someone who gets paid to predict the future of personal computing and consumer electronics, I have been closely watching the disruptive nature of the tablet. Tablets have forced traditional PC vendors to try and regroup, since their market for desktops and laptops is starting to flatten out. Yes, the PC market can still grow but it now grows in single digits each year.

On the other hand, the tablet market is growing as much as 200% a year, and smartphones are growing at about 50% annually. The PC vendors now struggle to enter the tablet and smartphone markets in order to jump on the personalized computing bandwagon. They want to try and extend their strong positions in personal computing by becoming part of the personalized computing revolution.

Except for Apple, making the transition from being a personal computing company to a personalized computing company has been very difficult for vendors. Apple has about a three-year lead on traditional PC vendors, which has solidified Apple as the market leader. An even more ominous problem for PC vendors is that tablets are now starting to eat into the demand for PCs as users realize that they can use a tablet to do up to 80% of what they can do on a PC, and only need to use their PCs for what I call “heavy lifting” — tasks such as advanced spreadsheets, editing documents and creating images and graphics that can’t be done well on a tablet.

(MORE: Why the iPhone Has a Head Start on the Future of Personal Computing)

But there’s an even more disruptive technology in the works that will take personalized computing to the next level by setting up a computing world where personalized computing devices go beyond the ones we know today: the cloud, and its role in delivering personalized, distributed computing in the very near future.

There is a rather interesting irony to this new development. When computing started out, it was based on mainframes being the center of the computing experience. Users accessed the mainframes from what we referred to as “dumb terminals.” All of the intelligence, data and data processing were done on the mainframes; these terminals just accessed the content.

Now, history is repeating itself with the cloud. The cloud is starting to become the “mainframe” in the sky. Even though we have “smart terminals” in the way of PCs, tablets and smartphones, the cloud is where much of our digital stuff will reside. The cloud allows us to access our digital stuff and keep it synchronized with our various personalized computing devices.

Perhaps a more accurate way to think about this is that in the future, people will have a lot of screens, each of which will be tied to their own cloud so they can access all of their personal data and content on whichever screen is the handiest at the time. If I am in the living room watching TV, my television could become the smart terminal of the moment that I use to access my pictures, movies and anything else of mine that is in my cloud. Or if I’m in the kitchen and need something from my cloud, I might use the screen on my refrigerator to get what I need. Or perhaps in the future if I’m on the road and need something from my personal cloud, I could pull over and use the car’s Internet-connected screen to get me what I want from my personal cloud.

The future of personalized computing will not be limited to our PCs, tablets or smartphones. In our digital future, we will have all types of screens in our lives that are tied to the cloud and can be used to access our digital stuff. In fact, with companies like Corning working on flexible displays, I fully expect to someday have a screen on my arm that’s like a bracelet. The screen would connect to the Internet and could even be smart, but more likely it would serve as another gateway to my personal cloud. Google’s Project Glass represents another screen that I could use to access my stuff in the cloud as needed.

The future of personalized computing is a future where we will have all types of screens in our lives and the one that is the most important is the one that is closest at hand at the time someone needs access to their cloud.

Here again Apple has a major lead on its competitors because of its iCloud solution, which allows me to store my pictures, music, movies and more in the cloud and then access them on any other connected Apple device I have available to me. Amazon and Google are taking similar paths that allow you to keep your content in the cloud and access it from whatever screen you have available at the time you need it. However, they are both far behind in making their cloud experiences as easy and seamless as Apple’s solution already is today.

While the cloud still has a lot of maturing to do, make no mistake: it sits at the heart of the future of personal computing. The cloud will be tied to all types of screens, and we’ll access our digital stuff on the screen that’s closest to us at the time.

Within the next three to five years, we will make a dramatic move from personal to personalized computing. While PCs, tablets, smartphones and connected TVs may be the main devices we tie to our personal clouds, they will represent just four of the screens we’ll be able to use. Over time, we’ll see a whole crop of new screens emerge that will tie us each to our personal cloud to make personal computing truly personalized.

MORE: A Tablet in Every Room: How to ‘Think Different’ About the Future

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to the “Big Picture” opinion column that appears every Monday on Techland.