Blogger Charlie Stross makes some interesting five-year predictions for the tech industry. The short version is that he senses a certain blood-in-the-water mentality among the major tech players because the future of computing rests not with hardware or software, per se, but rather in consumer devices that seamlessly connect to a cloud for distributed data and applications. The world of desktop computers with locally installed software that have occasional use of the Internet — a paradigm dominant since the early 1990s — is about to be radically upended.
He seems to suggest that HP’s recent Palm bid, and Microsoft’s dropping of the Courier tablet project, and Apple’s Fort-Knox security practices, and Google’s cloud focus, and the leapfrogging in wireless infrastructure in the U.S., all point in one direction: Hardware will become a secondary, generic, low-margin commodity even as applications that reside on a single hard drive lose market share and visibility. In Stross’s view, as I take it, the future lies with Apple’s business model of a walled-off garden of propriety software and strictly regulated third-party applications, which users access seamlessly through devices that sync with centralized servers that perform OS upgrades, store data and configuration settings, and push subscribed applications directly to the user.
To some degree, I agree that Stross’s hypothetical has potential. There is an unambiguous drive toward centralization and coordination of the user experience. Cloud computing has a real benefit to people who move from place to place, and having a trusted vendor coordinate access and security rights is useful.
That said, I question (in a constructive sense only) his overall conclusion, for a couple of reasons:
- Many people have information that they refuse to push into the publicly accessible ecosphere. Ever wonder what people do with the billions of dollars each year they download in porn? Hint: It’s not going on a discoverable cloud server, nor will trillions of pirated MP3s. As long as people desire privacy for critical files, including most importantly pirated media files, local storage will be essential, and as long as local storage is essential, the role of the cloud (although perhaps strong) will not “kill” hardware. The RIAA and the Apple App Store actually work against widespread public adoption of cloud storage: Why risk a lawsuit and the risk of peeking by the vendor or law enforcement, or a vendor making your decisions for you about which applications and data you are allowed to have, when local storage is faster/cheaper/more secure?
- High-end computer gaming — just try it on an Atom processor. Have *you* experienced Barrens chat on a netbook? Likewise with apps that require large datasets, like some statistics packages. And don’t get me started on high-end video and image editing, or publication design. Tablet or netbooks have their obvious benefits, but they just aren’t capable, in current form, of replacing a full-strength desktop/laptop system, and until they do, these new devices may serve a niche role in the lives of those who own them, but they will compliment, not displace, the current computing paradigm.
- A backlash may be brewing on privacy. As Facebook and Twitter grow, so also does a sense that perhaps we are “too connected.” I suspect that there is an upper limit to how much personal information — including sensitive data — we are willing to push into the cloud, and as society matures about social-media concepts, my gut says we will err on less sharing than today, rather than more. The initial rejection of Google Buzz was significant, as is ongoing user (and Congressional!) scrutiny of Facebook’s shifting privacy standards. We may be willing to share information early on, before we are aware of the drawbacks, but eventually we will pull back from the brink.
- Sometimes some files and applications are too important to trust that always-on network connectivity will be an option. Too many places still have too sporadic access to data services. Data access is also so slow that syncing and using a massive filesystem remotely using Wifi or 3G is prohibitive: If I want to browse for a song in my 30 GB music library, am I really going to wait for the library to stream, or to wait as the file cache reloads? Or will I sync my Blackberry music library via USB every couple of months, and call it good? I’m not sure that widespread, high-quality, high-speed wireless access will be ubiquitous enough to support a mobile-device/cloud-access model for at least a decade. We just aren’t where we need to be with open-access infrastructure.
- Users like consistency. As long as I have a radically difference experience working on my laptop with local data versus using a Web app for cloud data versus using my Blackberry for yet other data, I’m going to be in a “roll your own” environment that speaks against a desire to look to a single vendor’s all-in-one solution as my default go-to strategy. I suspect savvy users will act similarly. I will never buy an iPhone or an iPad because I refuse to be locked into Apple’s proprietary model, nor do I put anything but the bare minimum into Google’s “free” services. Instead, I have my laptop and a long-running contract with a professional hosting company. I have my own private browser-accessible cloud (I use Gladinet software to sync critical files real-time with a protected file tree on my hosted account), my own IMAP server that won’t be shut unless I shut it down, my own public FTP directory on my private server for world-sharing sharing files (and occasionally, hosting them for others), and my own WordPress blog that won’t be shut down because a user complains about content. Everything I need, I have on my own, at little cost and hassle, and customized to my exact preferences. Although most users aren’t going to go to the same level as I do, enough will, I suspect, especially when the cost of the walled garden is a nickle here and a dime there, every day of the week.
- Hubris is a powerful roadblock. Yes, Apple’s recent strategic moves are suggestive. But what happens when Apple’s market share is eroded overnight by something new and disruptive? What if a kick-ass HTC unit running Windows Phone 7 Series, this autumn, gives the iPhone a run for its money? What if the FTC signals it’s interested in breaking up Google? What if Microsoft gets its act together and develops a truly comprehensive, seamless online suite that transparently extends Windows 7 with Office 2010 and its new smartphone OS?
My gut prediction for the tech industry in 2015:
- Apple’s market share remains constant, and people continue to give Apple the credit for having more influence than it really does.
- Consumer pushback against invasive data practices by Facebook and Google result in a rollback of data-sharing, prompted by the threat of legislation and FTC inquiries and as a strategic move against online-ad monopoly lawsuits against Google. As aggressive opt-in strategies proliferate, people choose to opt-in less frequently, thereby undercutting a data-commodity revenue model that undergirds a chunk of Google’s strategic plan.
- Open-source solutions (led, most iconically, by Canonical) grow in sophistication and polish but cannot significantly improve market share.
- Infrastructure improves but is still not capable of reliably supporting ubiquitous cloud computing on mobile devices.
- Hardware complexity continues to advance (more and more cores, more and more memory, increasingly powerful GPUs) but almost no consumer applications will tax the new standard of hardware resources. This will have serious implications in the enterprise market.
- Microsoft has an internal shake-up that starts to move from a “battlin’ business unit” model into a more top-down and centralized hierarchy; this has implications for core business decisions.
- Search is concentrated between Google and Bing, and the browser wars are largely as they are today.
Of course, the nice thing about predictions is that it’s mostly just a random guess.