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The End of the PC: 3 Screens and a Cloud

We see the shift beginning to play out as fragments of the picture leak out on to the Network. Presumably the strategy was set 4 or 5 years ago, but the artifacts of its implementation are now appearing in regular release cycles. As we fit more pieces into the puzzle, the picture is coming in to focus.

Most technology is only useful to the extent that people are around it. Some technical experiences are powerful enough to draw people to the technology. Recently we’ve seen a new landscape emerge where powerful technology is created that can follow people around wherever they might go. The big players are positioning themselves to flourish in this new world.

It may have been Ray Ozzie who most succinctly drew the boundaries of this new landscape by coining the phrase: “three screens and a cloud.”

“So, moving forward, again I believe that the world some number of years from now in terms of how we consume IT is really shifting from a machine-centric viewpoint to what we refer to as three screens and a cloud:  the phone, the PC, and the TV ultimately, and how we deliver value to them.?

Ozzie’s phrase assumes the transition from locally-installed software to mostly cloud computing. It equalizes, and puts into the same field, three devices with historically separate development and usage paths. It also reduces all of the physical characteristics of the devices to the virtual, by way of a screen. In addition, the specific historical uses of these devices is replaced with delivering value from the Network. This implies that the functionality of these separate channels has been absorbed, blended, and can be delivered over the Network.

Some assume all of these devices are being absorbed into the personal computer, but if you track the evolution of the PC’s form factor you can see that it’s been reduced to an input (keyboard, mouse, camera, microphone) and an output (screen). The CPU has largely disappeared from the experience, it’s been reduced to the primary user interaction points. This is just a preparation for its ultimate absorption into the new three screen ecosystem.

There’s a fixed screen that creates a large high-definition experience and draws the user to it. This screen is appropriate for individuals or social groups. There’s a small mobile screen that the user takes with her everywhere she goes. This is a private screen, mostly for individual use. And there’s a medium-sized screen that you bring along when there’s a specific work/play purpose requiring a larger interaction surface, or when you need a device that bridges the private and the public.

If you think about the mobile phone market prior to the release of the iPhone; the transition to a platform in which a “small screen delivers value from the Network” seemed an impossibility. The players were entrenched and the carriers controlled the device market. The deal that was cut with AT&T, along with the revaluation of all values in the mobile device market, created a new starting point. There was no evolutionary path from the old mobile telephone to the iPhone. Although technically, it’s a small computer, Jobs was specifically aiming at creating the small personal screen.

“I don’t want people to think of this as a computer,? he said. “I think of it as reinventing the phone.?

Apple dropped “Computer” from it’s name and placed a large bet on the post-PC future with the iPhone. They have publicly reset their strategic direction and now describe themselves as a ‘mobile devices company.” The iPad doubles down on mobility and bets that the netbook was a rough sketch of what would be useful as a second screen in a mobile computing context. Both the iPhone and iPad— through multi-touch— have continued to reduce the frame of interaction. The screen is transformed and becomes both the input and the output for the user’s experience.

A key development in the ‘three screens and a cloud’ vision is the elimination of input devices. The screen, and the gesture space around it, serves the user for both input and output.

Google has begun to design their products with a mobile-first sensibility, and has even made public statements indicating that within three years the mobile screen will be the user’s primary interaction point with the Network. Both Chrome and Android point to mobile technology. (It should be pointed out that Android isn’t an operating system, it’s a java-based runtime that sits on top of a Linux OS. In this sense, it’s more similar to Silverlight)

Microsoft made a hard pivot with the Windows Phone 7 product. The “Life in Motion” theme and the кухниtiles and hub user interface moves away from file systems and toward lifestream themes. Add to this the porting of Silverlight to the Symbian, Android and Windows Phone platforms, throw in a connection to Azure, and you have a massive developer pipeline to the small screen.

We all like to paraphrase William Gibson on the future, it’s here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Although this isn’t different from most things: the past, the present and any object you’d care to choose from the physical universe. None are distributed evenly. Time, as the old joke goes, is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. And therefore it follows that Space, is nature’s way of keeping everything from being just one big smoothie.

Progress toward the vision of “three screens and a cloud” will be measured in the distribution power of the major technology/media players. Apple has developed a significant channel through its innovative devices, iTunes and its physical stores. Microsoft has a strong base in operating system and office applications, but has expanded their distribution portfolio with Silverlight and Azure. Google’s distribution power is contained in their search index, which is exposed through their search query page. Facebook and Twitter’s distribution power is located in their social graph and the fire hose of their real-time index. All of these players have created vibrant developer ecosystems. This future won’t be distributed evenly, but to break through to mass markets, it will require both distribution power and a high-touch service channel.

The convergence implied in the phrase “three screens and a cloud” will consume the personal computer as well. It will be transformed, blended, and its functionality and services made accessible through any of the three screens. Preparations have long been underway for the a Post-PC future. The productivity once available only through the old devices and channels has been migrating quickly to the new Network-connected screens. Google has now joined Microsoft and Apple in attending to the possibilities of the large screen. These changes aren’t taking place as a gradual evolution, there’s a dangerous leap required to reach this new platform. Not every company will have the strength, capital and will to make that leap. And as the old devices and channels are hollowed out, at some point there will be a major collapse of the old platforms.

In the war rooms around the technology world, there’s a conversation going on about what it will take to get to the other side.

Published in culture design digital hci innovation network real time web risk social graph value zettel


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