Mossberg: The Disappearing Computer

“Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.” It was true then, and for many, many years thereafter. Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren’t designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests.

But, over time, the products have gotten more reliable and easier to use, and the users more sophisticated. You can now hand an iPad to a six-year-old, and, with just a bit of help, she will very likely learn how to operate it quickly. That’s amazing, given that the iPad is far more powerful than any complex PC I was testing in the 1990s. Plus, today’s hardware and software rarely fails catastrophically like PCs did so often in the old days.

So, now, I’d say: “Personal technology is usually pretty easy to use, and, if it’s not, it’s not your fault.” The devices we've come to rely on, like PCs and phones, aren't new anymore. They're refined, built with regular users in mind, and they get better each year.

Anything really new is still too close to the engineers to be simple or reliable. Many people aren’t going to be able to hook up a dedicated virtual reality system, or want to wear the headset. And most of us can’t yet trust Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant for an accurate, useful answer much of the time. But it’s early days for those technologies.

So: where are we now, and what’s coming?

The big software revolutions, like cloud computing, search engines, and social networks, are also still growing and improving, but have become largely established.

a strange kind of lull has set in

Consumer drones and robotics are in their infancy, a niche, with too few practical uses as yet.

The biggest hardware and software arrival since the iPad in 2010 has been Amazon’s Echo voice-controlled intelligent speaker, powered by its Alexa software assistant. It arrived in 2015, and was followed last year by the similar Google Home device. I expect others.

But the Echo and Alexa are just getting started. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told me in an interview last year that artificial intelligence was not just in the first inning of a long baseball game, but at the stage where the very first batter comes up. And, while Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Echo family, third-party estimates say that, while they are growing fast, they were still well below 10 million units last year. For comparison, even in a relatively weak period, Apple sold 50 million much costlier iPhones in just 90 days last quarter, and the combined total sales of the far more prevalent Android phones no doubt were much greater.

Google just announced that there are now 2 billion Android devices in active monthly use globally, and Apple announced a year and a half ago that there were over 1 billion iOS devices in active use. These are mostly smartphones, and they are no longer novel.

Wait for it

But just because you’re not seeing amazing new consumer tech products on Amazon, in the app stores, or at the Apple Store or Best Buy, that doesn’t mean the tech revolution is stuck, or stopped. In fact, it’s just pausing to conquer some major new territory. And, if it succeeds, the results could be as big, or bigger, than the first consumer PCs were in the 1970s, or even the web in the 1990s and smartphones in the first decade of this century.

All of the major tech players, companies from other industries, and startups with names we don’t know yet are working away on some or all of the new major building blocks of the future. They are: artificial intelligence / machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and drones, smart homes, self-driving cars, and digital health / wearables.

All of these things have dependencies in common. They include greater and more distributed computing power, new sensors, better networks, smarter voice and visual recognition, and software that’s simultaneously more intelligent and more secure.

Examples of all these technologies already exist, but they are early, limited, and mainly attractive to enthusiasts. Compared to what’s coming, they are like the Commodore PET (look it up, kids) or those huge car phones in old movies.

We’ve all had a hell of a ride for the last few decades, no matter when you got on the roller coaster. It’s been exciting, enriching, and transformative. But it’s also been about objects and processes. Soon, after a brief slowdown, the roller coaster will be accelerating faster than ever, only this time it’ll be about actual experiences, with much less emphasis on the way those experiences get made.

As a gadget-lover, this makes me a little sad. But, as a tech believer, it’s tremendously exciting. I won’t be reviewing all the new stuff anymore, but you can bet I’ll be closely watching this next turn of the wheel.

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