End of the Computer Era

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

In late January, we began to hear about the unveiling of India’s $10 laptop on February 3. The news got the media’s attention, and when the day finally arrived, the anticipation worldwide was palpable. Then, as the day wore on and the silence became underwhelming, news gradually leaked into the web that the Rs-500 or Sakshat was not a computer but a computing device. The excitement quickly turned to deprecation. The bang turned out to be a whimper, what the Times of India refers to as a “damp squib.” It seemed we’d been had.

But had we?

What exactly is a computer anyway? Right now, I’m writing this article at my neighborhood Starbucks on a $350 laptop the size of a large paperback novel. It came with everything you’d associate with a computer, including 1GB of RAM, a 120GB hard drive, Windows XP, wireless and ethernet connectivity. As a laptop, it does all the computing I need to do, including working online. For example, when I checked my email earlier, I found a message from my daughter, who uses her iPhone, which is a little smaller than a Hershey’s chocolate bar, to surf the web and read/write email.

When I envision my Aspire One and my daughter’s iPhone side by side, I can’t help but see a continuum, an evolutionary chain. In this chain, the computer gradually evolves into a web interface device, or WID 10dollar_laptop(pronounced “wide”), which integrates web and standard phone capabilities. My laptop is at the juncture of that shift, and further up the line is the iPhone.

And in between the two, I see what some are calling netbooks or nettops that look and behave like computers but rely on the web for applications, storage, and information. These hollowed-out computers are really just WIDs, with a keyboard for input, an LCD for output, and a minmal CPU to access and process web information.

This in-between stage is where I imagine the brick-sized Sakshat residing. It’s a WID on what might be a dead-end tangent or short-lived link. It doesn’t have a keyboard or an LCD. Its limited CPU will probably allow the unit to function independently or in tandem with a computer for web and other applications. The onboard memory for storing information will more than likely give way to web-based sources. In short, in its current configuration, it’s more a prototype than a finished product.

But the Sakshat’s role doesn’t end here. It may be the precursor to WIDs of the future, that is, if we can imagine an iPhone without its soft keyboard or LCD. The major drawback of the iPod and similar devices is the keyboard and display. They’re too small. But there will come a time when other forms of input such as voice will replace keyboards and other types of display such as projections or paper-thin sheets that can be folded or rolled up will supplant LCDs. Freed from the design constraints of keyboards and displays, these future WIDs will be much smaller than the chunky Sakshat and the candy-bar-sized iPhone.

The important point is that, without a keyboard and display, the WID won’t look like a computer. With its built-in functions limited to simply interfacing with the web, we’d be able to carry them on keychains much as we do thumb drives. When we arrive at this stage, when WIDs are more like the Sakshat than a laptop, I don’t think we’ll call them computers anymore. The computer era will have run its course, and it will be replaced by the WID era.

And WIDs will usher in the possibility of a whole new approach to education and learning. I can imagine them being mass produced for anywhere from $15 to $50 dollars. Everyone in the world will have cheap and easy access to the networking and information available on the web. WIDs, in conjunction with widely available Wi-Fi access, will literally turn anywhere and anytime into a classroom for learning, obviating the need for prohibitively expensive schools and campuses, construction and maintenance.

When that time arrives, we probably won’t remember the Sakshat except as an odd bump in the evolution of web interface devices.

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