There is a lot of debate these days about the future of PCs vis-a-vis Tablets. There is a school of thought that believes that Tablets are an inevitable replacements for PCs. A second school of thought believes that we are heading into a “PC plus” era where Tablets will only augment PCs, as Tablets will be used more for “content consumption” and PCs will remain the mainstay for “content creation” in the years to come. They believe that only PCs and desktops will have the necessary features such as bigger displays, more memory and higher processing power needed for programming, graphics design etc. The tablet supporters, rubbish this notion by showing how smartphones and tablets have evolved into powerhouses which can handle complex content creation tasks (as displayed by iMovie for the iPhone/iPad) and will only expand in their abilities to handle additional complexities.
Both these arguments are slightly flawed however. The future is simply, the Cloud. In another 5 – 6 years, the processing power or memory capacity of the system (PC or Tablet) will not matter. The strength and speed of a broadband connection will. All complex processing tasks will be performed on the Cloud and content delivered to a user’s system. A netbook will then be able to handle as complex processes as a PC. All data will be stored online and so will applications which will manipulate data real-time on the cloud. Hence, the user’s devices will be nothing more than a smart display (with hardware, software or gesture based I/O systems including voice recognition) which will receive the content from the cloud and send data back to it.
The cloud is already here. Atleast for data storage. Think about it. All your photos are mostly on Facebook (atleast the non-embarrasing ones). Movies are increasingly being streamed online. We probably listen to and share music more over Youtube and other such cloud based services. Why then would we store such data on our desktops? Onlive is a startup which is working on delivering games to your PC through the Cloud. All the processing power required by the game will be handled by Onlive’s servers and the content will be delivered to your system. That means one will not need to bother about the kind of video card or RAM installed. All you need to have is a good HD display and a strong broadband connection. True, this technology is still in its nascent stages, but even Microsoft and Sony are working to strengthen their cloud based offerings in their next console. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see such gaming happen post 5 years.
What about applications? Word and Spreadsheet processing is already happening on the cloud (think Google Docs, Office 365). IT majors are all focusing on cloud application development under a SaaS (Software as a Service) and PaaS (Platform as a Service) model. There are cloud-based image editing softwares which aim to replace Photoshop. While this is a tall order currently, there is no denying that these can become much more powerful in the coming decade.
Tech Giants such as Apple, Google and Microsoft are recognising this. Hence, they are increasing their focus on cloud solutions with iCloud, SkyDrive etc. They are also busy integrating their OSes to work across all devices. Hence, Apple’s Lion was a move to integrate their iOS with their traditional Mac OS X and maybe with a potential Apple TV in future. Windows 8 aims to be a common platform for Tablets as well as PCs and maybe even Xbox and smartphones in future. Future versions of these OSes are being designed to run on smartphones, tablets and even gaming consoles/TVs. A common OS across devices, because in the future, content will be streamed to the device and hence the nature of the device itself will perhaps become unimportant. What will probably matter is how the content is consumed on these devices and the user experience each of these devices can offer for the content (think: iOS and Google’s “App Tiles” versus the Win7 “live tiles”.) HTML5 based applications then, though not very powerful today can soon become the most major threat Apple, Google and Microsoft might face, and not each other.