(Disclosure: most of the companies mentioned are clients of the author.)
The pandemic has had a fascinating impact on the speed of change in IT. We connect remotely now more than ever before. We have a real chance for videoconferencing to finally do what it always promised — eliminate most business travel, including the morning commute. Tech companies in Silicon Valley have turned this into a massive hiring advantage: by hiring people who work remotely, they pay less than they otherwise would while offering salaries far above what workers would get locally.
It’s an ironic win/win for both sides.
The business changes foisted upon companies by Covid-19 have also led to advances in other areas that could soon disrupt much of what we do. Those areas are conversational computing, ambient computing, and Cloud PCs.
Let’s take a look at each and their collective impact.
With the help of Nvidia and a whole host of other companies, IBM is working to make it possible to have a conversation with an artificial intelligence peer. (Microsoft is working to advance this as well.) If you haven’t tried the conversation skills in an Amazon Echo, it is worth doing so to see how well this is evolving on the consumer side. Amazon’s conversational computing effort, which relies on its own technology, basically flips the script on computer interface development. In the past, a user typically had to learn how to communicate with the computer rather than the other way around.
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems are seeing constant upgrades, making it harder and harder to tell whether that voice asking if you want a new car warranty is human or not. Advances in industries like insurance sales and healthcare have shown substantial benefits.
I bring up IBM because, at one of the company’s events, execs described how a man who had been called by a telemarketing system not only signed up for insurance but tried to flirt with the computer and asked it out on a date.
Conversational computing doesn’t just have enormous implications for call centers and boiler rooms; it will eventually redefine how we work with computers, allowing them to provide companionship, a better grasp of what you need the computer to do, and over time, more a “human” partner than tool as it self-optimizes for its user.
This effort is mainly being driven by Amazon, but IBM (with Watson Assistant), Microsoft (with Cortana), and Apple (Siri) are playing in this space, too, though not as actively. Ambient computing involves computers you talk to every place you go. For instance, when getting gas, you might tell the pump what kind and how much fuel you want rather than using a keypad; you could tell the stove how to cook your meal; or you can turn on and off the faucet with your voice (which I can do now).
With ambient computing, the predominant interface is voice, though it can also use displays to provide feedback and talk back to you. This concept builds on conversational computing by making computer technology so common you’re always able to interact with one wherever you go.
The variant to this is wearable computing, where a headset connects you to the computing resource rather than requiring a collection of devices everywhere. And if you move to smartglasses and earbuds, you can keep half of the conversation quiet. On a side note, I have Amazon Echo devices all over my house, and during a conference call where company officials started detailing all the commands available, I got a tad concerned because my devices were responding to their commands.
Thank God I hadn’t hooked my car up yet.
Tied closely to the launch of Windows 365, the concept of a Cloud PC remains fascinating because it somewhat mimics the thin-client concept Oracle and Sun Microsystems tried two decades ago in their bid to displace Windows. Essentially, it allows anything connected to the cloud with a display and browser to be your Windows PC. You don’t need traditional PC hardware.
Smartphones aren’t yet able to pick up the slack, as they lack the needed high-speed wired or wireless ports for the necessary display. But very high-definition head-mounted displays are coming. Coupled with either a Thunderbolt-equipped smartphone or a more robust wireless display interface, they could evolve to become the perfect Windows hardware client.
You might recall a Microsoft Continuum project that continued well into the last decade with the HP Elite x3 phone, where the phone would handle both smartphone and PC functions. This effort makes the Continuum concept of a smartphone-based PC real. It’s only a matter of time before someone figures out the right hardware mix.
Wrapping up: The PC isn’t dead; it’s about to be reborn
Maybe we should name this coming wave of Everywhere PCs that talk to you “Lazarus.” Because as these three trends mature, we’ll be surrounded by computers that talk to us like people, offer a Windows experience wherever we and our smartphones are, and deliver an evolved computing experience that provides everyone with a companion. Form factors will need to change, interfaces will move toward voice, and head-mounted displays (once they mature) will forever change how we view and interact with our increasingly cloud-based PCs.
We are at the start of a massive change, something we haven’t seen since the PC was born. By the time this trend ends, our computers will have become our companions, always with us, and with the power of the cloud to back them up. We’ll talk to them like we talk to each other — with the main exception that the computers won’t take offense or turn against us.
This should make for a fascinating decade.