Today, one might think that computing, all of which relates to our computers and our use of them, has become stagnant. Some users are even, to this day, still using Windows XP, an operating system almost 10 years old, which is an excruciatingly long time for such a young and effervescent industry.
However, in reality, unbeknownst to a large population of users, computing is now changing faster than ever, and operating systems known to be as polished as their peripherals can be are now fading quickly into obliviousness. In order to more clearly understand what is happening, I urge you to read the following as a quick guide to the future of computing.
Resistive vs. Capacitive
Traditional PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) used resistive touch screens. A pressure-based technology which is, unless you’re using a fine point object, very imprecise. On top of that, these touch screens were initially much smaller than the gigantic smartphones we have today, meaning smaller virtual keyboards and interface elements, hence the use of a stylus, a plastic pen used to perform touch actions.
Newer capacitive technology uses the electric conductivity (thanks Jesse) of your finger. When you touch the screen, the place with the strongest current between your finger and the screen registers as a touch. Hence, it’s possible to use fingers with more precision on a capacitive touchscreen because all you have to do is make sure the interface element is in the middle of your finger. This is how we’re able today to type fairly well on virtual keyboards of which the keys are much smaller than our fingers.
While capacitive technology can still be used with a stylus, albeit one that conducts electricity (plastic doesn’t, so traditional styluses like that of your Nintendo DS won’t work), with today’s technology, larger screens and sophisticated multitouch capabilities have rendered the stylus unnecessary, see even cumbersome.
As an added advantage, capacitive touchscreens need a minimum amount of peak conductivity in a given spot to register a touch, meaning placing your device in your pocket is highly unlikely to generate unwanted touch actions.
To understand what is happening with computing, you first have to look at mobile phones.
In 1996, a division of US Robotics called Palm put on the market one of the first PDA. The reasoning behind such a device was to replace the infamous paper agenda most businessmen carried around. Instead of having a suitcase with a pen & paper agenda, digital age businessmen would only have to carry a small device in order to perform all of their booking.
However, with the mobile phone and email quickly becoming a business necessity, RIM (Research In Motion), a Canadian company, came out in 1999 with the first BlackBerry, a fusion of the PDA with a mobile phone, along with email functionality on top. Microsoft and Palm both followed by adding mobile phone functionality on top of their PDAs, but BlackBerry was for a long time preferred for its usability and hardware keyboard (BlackBerrys traditionally don’t use touch screens).
In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone, one of the first device on the market to use a capacitive touch screen. Three things made it a daring offer. First, it used only fingers for a touch screen, a feature many technology hobbyists approached with skepticism. Second, it did not feature any physical keyboard despite its reliance on inaccurate fingers for its touch screen. And third, the device had a notable focus on multimedia and Internet technologies, coming with music and video functionality, a large color screen and most of all, a full-featured Web browser.
This format became wildly popular and it was not long after that major mobile companies and new contenders announced their intention to do the same. Nowadays, the market is dominated by two relatively identical platforms in terms of focus, iOS by Apple and Android by Google, with vestiges of the past like BlackBerry still possessing a large part of the market.
BlackBerry’s market share is quickly dwindling under the pressure of Android and iOS while Windows Mobile and Palm have been practically eclipsed from the face of the market within a year. Microsoft has decided to reply to the threat with a complete rebranding and a brand new platform called Windows Phone 7. The new OS is highly competitive with current offerings but its newness shows and Windows Phone still lacks lots of the functionality it would have needed right away in order to compete, such as multitasking.
Indeed, many new technologies on today’s Androids and iPhones have been available on BlackBerrys since the dawn of ages, such as copy-paste and multitasking.
Palm, much in the same way as Microsoft, has created as brand new operating system called WebOS. Despite proving to be a mature offering in terms of functionality, showing of Palm’s experience in making PDA operating systems, the new OS has failed to garner attention in large part due to bad advertising and unimpressive hardware, and on the brink of bankruptcy, Palm was acquired by HP and with new-found funding, WebOS and its flagship device, the Palm Prē, are living on with their second version recently launched.
In the mean time, RIM has launched BlackBerry OS 6, but has failed to impress anyone and still lags behind technologically, notably in hardware. In order to fix many of its woes and hopefully save its business, RIM has opted to buy well-known embedded real-time OS maker QNX Software Systems, as well as TAT, a UI designing team known for its daringly cool concepts. However, these new efforts have yet to see the light of the day and the upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook tablet will only benefit from QNX’s expertise for the time being. RIM’s strategy has yet to be unveiled and they are quickly being forgotten by application developers and consumers as well.
Samsung has also unveiled its own OS, Bada, although the intention is for Bada to be used for feature phones, not smartphones, as a sort of transition between feature phones and Samsung’s new line of more expensive Android-based smartphones.
Nokia, the mobile phone manufacturer more well known outside of North America has decided to phase out Symbian and is introducing a new platform called MeeGo in partnership with Intel. While Symbian is technically considered as a smartphone platform, it’s of another generation of mobile devices that obviously don’t feature the kind of functionality users have come to expect in modern smartphones. Counting it out of the market share makes Android the most popular smartphone platform to date.
While Nokia’s MeeGo has yet to materialize into actual smartphones, the fact it uses Intel processors instead of ARM processors like its competitors is of significant importance, especially for Intel’s market share in the mobile processors market. However, such a topic is out of scope of this article.
In early 2010, Apple launched the iPad. While definitely not a new concept, Microsoft already selling Windows-based tablets for a long time, the iPad brought the same iPhone kind of revolution to the nearly non-existent tablet market. Capacitive touch screen, simpler to use, no physical keyboard, increased battery life and a better screen, the iPad has taken the world by storm and has instigated renewed interest in tablets for other hardware manufacturers. At CES 2011 in early January, many companies have announced their own tablets, practically all Android-based, in order to compete with Apple’s iPad and take a share of the new market created once again by Apple. Google has also announced the next version of its Android operating system, 3.0, specifically geared toward tablets.
Because of their ease of use and portability, tablets are quickly replacing laptops and full-fledged computers for daily computing use, while smartphones are replacing feature phones for their increased functionality.
The Apps Phenomenon
A key to understanding the modern smartphone and tablet platform is understanding apps, or applications.
A short time after Apple launched the iPhone, they opened the platform to developers so that they too could develop apps for the iPhone. They also opened a digital store that enabled developers to distribute the apps free, or sell them, while a portion of the profits was going to Apple.
This model became so popular that many new companies started to sprout just by making a fortune off of apps on the famed App Store. Today, more than 300,000 apps are available on the App Store, with more than 7 billion downloaded, a large part of which are games. The Android Market for Android-based smartphones is close behind with over 200,000 apps and 2.5 billion downloads, although the Android platform is open to other third-party digital distribution services and Web-based distribution as well which are not counted in these numbers.
Apps give a user the power to extend the mobile platform of their choice much in the same way a Windows or Mac user may download or buy new software for their computer. This is the principle differentiator between a smartphone and a feature phone. It’s also what enables tablets to become computer-like devices. New software can be installed for additional functionality.
Apps also bring more security to a platform. Most stores contain mechanisms to ensure that there are no malicious apps in the store, eliminating the need for complex and system resource intensive antivirus software.
Apple, for example, has a process through which every app on the App Store, including updates, must be approved by an app review committee before being available for download. Therefore, apps that do not meet strict design and performance guidelines or apps that crash your phone or that are malicious are not found on the App Store, contributing to the quality of the apps on Apple’s App Store. Apps on iOS can only be installed through the App Store. The closed nature of this method trades in a user’s freedom with more safety. While iOS is not impervious to browser-based attacks, it can be considered a safer platform to use for non technical than a more open platform such as Android.
Google, on the other hand, does routine checking of software on its Android Market to ensure that no app is malicious. However, Android apps are not checked for quality and some bad-designed apps can crash your smartphone. Fortunately, with 200,000 apps, these are often not popular and hard to find. Some malicious software were discovered in Chinese third-party app stores but were, for example, prevented from ever appearing on the Android Market more widely used as the primary store in North America, Europe, Japan and Korea.
Google’s strategy has proven more popular in particular to developers for the increased freedom and ability to distribute beta apps. Android’s more open nature has also proved popular with manufacturers that are allowed to provide many customization to the Android phones they are selling in order to differentiate their models and services from competitors.
Unlike Apple’s iOS, Android follows the PC model where different manufacturers are given access to the software. This has led to increasingly fierce competition more sophisticated and flashy hardware than what is available from Apple, as well as a larger market. While Apple’s iPhone is the number one selling smartphone, the combined sales of Android handsets have allowed Android to become number one in market share.
However, among all this revolution in the mobile phone market and now with tablet computers, one might wonder why the touch screen is so important and why so many smartphone models lack a physical keyboard.
While at first a touch screen may prove challenging, its ability to provide a custom interface tailored to the use each application and capacitive technology has proven more useful and easy for users. Additionally, because touch screens cannot use multiple buttons like a mouse, interfaces must readily display functionality, which results in radically simpler to use applications. This translates to tablets as well.
Apple is also well-known for its inclusion of only one button on its iOS-based devices, a home/multitask panel button, forcing developers to provide more functionality on-screen. While a good idea, this has proven to be a double-edged sword for sometimes complicating things rather than simplifying them.
Some might think that applying touch based functionality to traditional computing might prove to be far from ergonomic due to arm tiring. Indeed, this is true, and companies such as Apple have made it very clear that they have no intention to provide touch functionality on-screen for traditional style computers.
Other less functionality-conscious companies like HP and Microsoft have hoped to provide touch functionality to Windows and full-fledged PCs but fortunately Windows remains usable with a mouse and keyboard and these unpopular attempts will probably never reach your home.
The secret to the ergonomics of the smartphone and the tablet lies within their portability. With a smartphone, it is so light it can be easily used while holding it in a comfortable position either standing or sitting, using it often times with only one hand. With a tablet, it can easily be used on a desk just like a sheet of paper, in your lap, or while holding it in your hands when it is smaller. Even the larger iPad is usable when standing up.
Additionally, thanks to the touchscreen, smartphones and tablets eliminate carpal tunnel syndrome because it keeps your wrists and hands moving and flexing in natural ways while pointing and touching the device’s screen.
Obviously, tablets are not meant for complex computing, although few uses of computers justify the need for either the power of a full-fledged computer or the need for a full-size hardware keyboard. What’s more, word auto-completion on tablets and smartphones eliminate the usefulness of a physical keyboard. In fact, many users report typing faster on these devices than on their regular computers. Worry not, today’s tablets and smartphones feature full virtual QWERTY keyboards. Other systems like Swype on Android are trying to improve mobile typing by making alternative typing systems where you slide your finger across the virtual keys, after which the software guesses what you tried to write with surprising efficiency.
In the near future, business-adapted physical keyboard add-ons are easily perceivable as a valid alternative to long office hours of traditional computer work. WiFi technologies are also quickly eliminating the need for USB ports lacking on the iPad for printing and such, although competitors have announced tablets with USB ports.
Cloud storage technology is also eliminating the need for large storage capacity, while increasingly sophisticated solid state storage technology is enabling larger and larger storage capacity on tablets and smartphones.
Tablets are also much cheaper and often perform better, with more battery life, for what they do, than traditional PCs, because of optimized software.
Because so many computing uses, such as typing text, checking email, surfing the Internet, watching videos and listening to music, are so much simpler and quicker to do on tablets, it’s quite obvious that the future of computing lies in them.
In the near future, you can expect that traditional computers will start disappearing. You can also expect a more closed operating system business with less freedom than traditional computers, with devices that are not upgradable, but with a virtual elimination of the bulk of security problems users face today.
Obviously, with increasing functionality comes increased complexity, and even the simple iOS has gained functionality that is not obvious to use at first; its multitasking functionality. However, these devices remain infinitely easier and more practical than traditional computers.
For computer enthusiasts, tablets represent a future of computing where some of the most complicated tasks, such as installing new software, upgrading a system and remaining secure, will now be accessible to everyone.
As for traditional computers, they will surely remain for power computing usage which requires larger screens, faster computers and more sophisticated equipment, such as graphic design, programming, gaming, video editing, and more.
Companies like Apple, on the flip side, are hoping to merge together their smartphone and tablet efforts with traditional computing, converting computing powerhouses such as the iMac into easier to use but equally powerful computers that could easily double as entertainment centers as well as power computing devices.
Whatever the future holds, one thing is for sure, tablets will soon become a center part of your life at the expense of traditional computers, much like smartphones are at the expense of traditional mobile phones.