The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

The Evolution of Personal Computing: Complexity vs Simplicity

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on January 11, 2014

It’s kind of amazing how much personal computers have changed in the last 30 years, both in form factor and in capability.  My very first true computer was a Commodore Vic-20, complete with a tape drive that my father actually built from an old cassette tape player and some electronic parts.  It was basically a keyboard with the hardware embedded inside that connected to a TV, and I believe it came with a whopping 5K of memory. Then came the Apple IIe’s that we used in high school, with a separate monitor, but with the keyboard still part of the main housing.  In college I used my first Intel-based PC that ran DOS, and boasted a keyboard that was separate from the processor.  Shortly after that, along came Windows, and a mouse was added to the computing package.  And for a long time, that’s what a personal computer looked like – a big box to hold the processor and storage media (usually tan or black), a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse.  There were little outliers here and there (I still have my original Palm Pilot in a box somewhere), but for the most part, PCs were a pretty homogenous breed.

And then, a little over 10 years ago, the “big bang” happened – an explosion of devices and form factors that continues to gain speed today.  Starting with the early music players like the iPod, then smartphones, netbooks, tablets, gaming consoles – the very definition of a personal computer blurred.  While I’m sure many people still think of that box/monitor/keyboard combination when the term “PC” is evoked, the reality is that personal computing devices are blending into our environment more and more seamlessly.  We’re now starting to see entirely new devices emerge that look nothing like what’s come before, but still leverage silicon and software to do remarkable things – wearables like the Fitbit Force on my wrist, Google Glass, smart thermostats like the Nest, and the list gets longer every day.

While all of this complexity and variety is happening, there’s a parallel move towards simplicity that’s gaining strength as well.  The emergence of the cloud as a home for processing power, and the widespread adoption of broadband and wireless internet connections are creating opportunities for devices that are actually simpler and less capable by themselves, such as Google’s Chromebook laptop, a device that essentially runs a Web browser and nothing more.  For many people who use computing devices for tasks like email, creating documents and simple spreadsheets, and monitoring social media, a simple device like the Chromebook is likely all they’ll need, and eliminates a lot of the complex interaction learning that a Windows 8 PC requires.  For a long time, more features meant a better product, but for many people, the complexity of computing becomes a barrier.

Venture capitalist MG Siegler posted yesterday that he may buy his LAST computer in 2014, citing the near-perfect capabilities of an imagined Retina MacBook Air, which he feels will offer all of the things he needs, with enough power that he’d never need to upgrade again.  This is an interesting development, because for the last 30 years, computer users have been straining for the “next leap”, and computer manufacturers have sunk billions of dollars into R+D to deliver.  What if we’re reaching a point where, for the average person at least, the “traditional” computing devices of the very near future are “good enough”, and we don’t need to buy a new PC or laptop every few years?  I’m not sure I can imagine using my current iMac 20 or 30 years from now, but short of some new capability that requires a ton of local processing power, I’m also not sure what else I’d need a computing device for that the iMac can’t do.  Naturally, at some point the device itself might fail, but the built-in technology obsolescence that has become the norm in the personal computer industry might be nearing it’s end.  The implications of that, for manufacturers as well as individual users, are interesting to contemplate…


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