I wrote a series of posts awhile back which I called “The Resurrection of Wintel.” Here is the first and here is the second. I described a series of changes that affected the previous leadership of the computer industry by Intel and Microsoft. I explained that I did not believe that the current wave of computing, Cloud Computing, was stable and postulated that there was another wave coming and that it might be possible for Intel to play a major role. In reality, I do not see Microsoft doing much more than breaking itself up, but I do believe that Intel has a chance if they would only take it.
TIme-sharing becomes Personal Computing
In the mid 60s when I first started working with computers, Time-sharing was just starting up. Prior to that, computers used Batch Processing where one job was done at a time. Batch processing was great at utilizing the computer but not so good at utilizing peoples time. Time-sharing was the beginning of a movement away from maximizing the equipment to maximizing the time of the users. But Time-sharing had its issues too. It was particularly limited by bandwidth particularly for remote users., and was typically a closed system and users could not easily introduce new software applications.
Recently, one of the people that worked for me when I was at Intel, reminded me of a meeting in the early 90s that I had with a senior executive at Disney. I was telling that person and his staff about how I saw the personal computer becoming the driving force in computing, and the role it would play in the home especially once we got residential broadband deployed. That executive was a bit incredulous and said that it made no sense to have all these computers in homes, when most of the time they would just sit idle. We were in a big conference room that had the curtains closed. I went to the window and opened the curtain. I asked him to come over to the window and look out and tell me what he saw. The view was of a parking lot with more than a thousand autos sitting idle just waiting to take their owners home after work. I pointed out the busses were like Time-sharing and cars were like personal computers. Every laugh and got the message.
From One Computer and Many Users to One User and Many Computers
As computer technology came down in cost and increased in it’s performance, Moore’s law at work, we saw more and more computers in offices and homes. At first, homes would have one computer that would be shared between family members, but eventually homes had multiple computers and local area networks. Now we have computing devices in our pocket or purse. Soon we will be wearing computers as well.
The result of having multiple computers/devices has been a great increase in complexity. We may have a computer at the office and one at home and one in our pocket but we only want to have one list of contacts ,and one calendar. When we delete an email from one machine we don’t want to find it on another. This is one of the factors that has been pushing more and more computing into the cloud. Right now we have some applications that run on our device but sync with the cloud so that other devices can be updated to the same state. An example of that is the Apple Mail App and iCloud. But we have other applications that only run in the cloud and just use our device for display and input. An example of that is Facebook or Google Search. Different applications require different amounts of computing power. This creates a trade off in how much power to purchase. For developers of applications, there is a lot of complexity around how many configurations to support.
Amazon Leads the Next Generation of Computing
Amazon is probably the key driver for the next generation of computing. I don’t mean the book selling part. I am talking about Amazon Web Services (AWS). My dear friend, Bob Cringley, wrote about some of that here.
Some of you will remember when Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle made a big push for Thin Clients (basically a modern equivalent to a terminal) and Network Computing in the mid 90s. Like many of us, Larry was too early. This was after John Gage of Sun Computer had earlier in that decade declared that “The Network is the computer.” Too bad for Sun, as it would take more than 20 years for that statement to become true.
It is interesting to see the same phase used on the web site of this company.
A Rising Wave-Independence of Devices and People
Like most changes in the computer industry (and other industries as well), major changes come about because of the intersection of independent developments. Those that can see the intersection early and understand the implications can do extremely well, especially when they understand how these changes can result in addressing the needs of customers. As I am fond of saying, “if you want to surf, it is not enough to have a surfboard and go to a beach. Yo go to a beach and wait for a wave. You have to understand that you can not make a wave.”
I have been putting together a list of the waves that will come about in the next phase of computing and hope to write about them one at a time over the next month or so.
The first is what I call Independence. Right now, I have a computer and my wife has a computer, the hardware is basically identical. We have identical iPhones and iPads. But mine are mine and hers are hers because of the programs and data on the devices. If all the data and programs were running in the cloud, I could pick up her device and sign in (probably just with my fingerprint) and it would become my device for instance. I could go to the office and grab any computer and it would become my computer. I could use any smart phone and it would become my smart phone.
If this is how things will work in the future, the role of computers/devices will be primarily that of Input/Output. The device could become much cheaper, simpler and would not need to updated or replaced very often. And if you loose your phone, you have not lost your data. Devices will also play a very important role in security. All this is not good news for the makers of personal computers and devices.
What will make this possible. There are two key factors. One is high speed and low latency bandwidth and the other is powerful graphics processors (GPUs). Human input is pretty slow. We click on a few things and gets alot displayed back. Today, it is our devices that generate the images we see and the sounds we hear directly from software running on the devices. But we also get streaming video which is decompressed and displayed on our screens. Video is much faster. But we are now all experiencing streaming video. This kind of video is buffered so that changes in latency of the network do not show up. But networks are becoming much faster and latency is improving.
So imagine if the screen you are now looking at as you read this post was just a video stream. You can easily see that if you have a Mac or iPAD and AppleTV. You can Clone the display on your computer/device and then see it on your big screen flat panel display.
There are other technologies needed to make this happen are on the back end of the network. Amazon is driving a lot of this with its AWS service. They are taking away the complexity of the network from the application side by making it reliable and scaleable. This will enable new business models including paying by the minutes for the use of powerful applications such as Autodesk.
Back to Intel but not Back to the Future
The the mid 80s Intel lead by Gordon Moore and Andy Grove took a very courageous decision. They decided to leave the solid state memory business and bet the company on microprocessors. That did not mean that they stopped making memory chips but they no longer invested in their development. The business minds of the company from engineering to marketing focused on the microprocessor business. Soon Andy, who was CEO by that time, understood that it was really the PC business where the action would be. He coined the term “The PC is it” and Intel became the most valuable company in the world for a while.
Now it is time for the new management to realized that the PC is not it. They should have the courage that Jeff Bezos had when he set up the Kindle group and told them that their mission was to destroy the Amazon book business at a time when that was Amazon’s core business.