A new era is only a new state of mind

The following interview was conducted by Bruno Ferrari a writer about technology for EPOCA, the weekly magazine of Organizações GLOBO, the largest Brazilian media company on March 30 2011. The article (published in Portuguese here) is an edited subset of the following exchange.

Q: In your analyses, you mention tablets as part of a new era, the “Post PC era”. Why do you think the PCs will be replaced by tablets?

This is not quite correct. Post PC does not mean the end of the microcomputer. The way to think about it is this: The stone age did not end because we stopped using stones. Same with the iron age and the industrial era. The era of jet travel did not end automobile or even ship travel (though that changed to recreation rather than transportation for passengers.) Each phase of technology does not fully replace its predecessor. It offers a new set of solutions and perhaps a slightly different way of solving old problems. We’ll still have PCs but we will use a new type of computer, an even more personal computer. The world still uses the microcomputer’s technological ancestors.

In terms of what new jobs will we hire the tablets to solve, they will vary greatly from what we used PCs for. Just like we used microcomputers for different things than we used time-shared minicomputers and mainframe computers. I expect social interaction, media consumption and entertainment will move from a PC to a tablet. New uses will emerge from the vast experiment that is the app phenomenon.

Q: What are the new ways to interact with machines? With gestures? How will this change the market?

Each major disruption of computing came from a new generation of input and/or output methods. Terminals (vs. punch cards) enabled minicomputers. The GUI enabled the rise of the microcomputer and touch is enabling the rise of the tablet. Perhaps this era will last decades perhaps only years, but there will be new input and output methods available. The world’s research laboratories are filled with ideas from projection screens (from high brightness LEDs) to motion sensing (as implemented partly by Kinect) and even novel voice control methods. I believe that each major innovation will create a new wave of growth and, if coupled with a new business model, a new set of companies and platforms.

Q: What are the main differences between PC and Post PC era?

The main difference will be in the context in which the product will be used. Tablets and smartphones allow “computing” to be done in previously non-consuming contexts: while standing, while in the active company of others, while commuting or while lying back and relaxing. It will also allow more individual use. Like the transistor radio allowed teenagers to listen to rock-and-roll out of hearing range of their parents who had control over the family stereo, a truly personal computer will allow people to “escape” into a world of more intimate consumption and communication.

Q: Do you think physical keyboards and mouse will be extinct?

Even physical keyboards have been evolving dramatically. If you look back to the earliest IBM PC keyboards, they were mechanically complex and had a rich feel. Modern laptop keyboards are flimsy things with barely any feedback. Early PC keyboards were patterned after the needs of professional typists (aka secretaries). Current keyboards are designed around space constraints. Same with mice. They went from two to three to one to no buttons. With laptops we ended up with track balls,  little knobs in the middle of the keyboard or with trackpads. Users adjusted over time.

What changed with tablets is the removal of an on-screen pointer. The pointer was there because the mouse/touchpad was one layer of abstraction for controlling what was on screen. Without a pointer you have direct manipulation. I’m sure many people who never used a mouse would find the direct method more intuitive and in a generation people will wonder how we put up with mice. Conversely, those who are used to a mouse will find it uncomfortable at first. Remember that in the 80s many keyboard experts found mice something that slowed them down.

So I believe that people will adjust to a world without mouse pointers. I suspect children born today will grow up without ever using a mouse (or a phone with a wire permanently attached to the bottom).

Q:  Apple has more than 90% of tablet market worldwide. Do you think Apple will be the leader of technology market in the next few years?

The challenge for Apple is that they cannot serve the whole world. They can only grow so fast. On one hand we have their inability to meet demand and on the other we have alternative products which can. Market leadership may not be sustainable just because the market is so big and no single company can supply it. I do believe that Apple is not sitting on its hands however. Their culture promotes pushing forward.

Q: At smartphone market, do you believe on a risk of a new duopoly, Apple-Google? Some analysis says that they’ll control the channel sales of software, content and hardware. The conclusion is companies like RIM, Nokia and HP (Palm) will not be able to keep up.

Analysts differ in their opinions. IDC just released a forecast that shows Microsoft growing beyond iOS in four years. I don’t try to make this type of prediction. At least not to a high degree of precision. I do believe that there will be more than two platforms. This is because the market is so large and so diverse and there are so many ways to reach customers (through operators, through retail stores, through online).

Q: Can we compare the beginning of the tablets with PCs? Apple developed the interface and made ​​the first computers nice and easy to use. But Windows has allowed hardware manufacturers to invade the market, popularizing it. This will be repeated with Android? Or with other systems?

Innovations are always copied. Even when protected by all sorts of laws or patents. What makes a company successful with innovation long term is to always keep innovating. Often coming up with the next big thing means damaging the old thing. That’s hard to do for many companies so they don’t do it and somebody else does. This is why great companies end up as formerly-great companies. As I pointed out above in the discussion about input methods, innovations are always bubbling up. As long as Apple takes these ideas and polishes them and brings them to market, they’ll do all right.

Q; How about Microsoft? Do you think the company will lose the podium in Post PC era?

Microsoft already has lost its position as leader in personal technology. The end actually came in about 2000. Once Windows became “good enough” and did not crash so much, they have had a hard time finding something to improve. If you go back and watch every CES keynote that Microsoft presented since then it’s been a litany of dead end ideas.

Every major innovation since 2000 has been in consumer technology and that’s never been an attractive business for Microsoft (with the exception of XBox which was really aimed at Sony and Nintendo without the intention of creating a new market.) Microsoft struggles not because they lack talent (engineering or management) but rather because their business model is relatively rigid. They make money through software licensing. You can see how that’s a hard thing to sell to consumers (“I’m buying what?”) Consumers tend to pay Microsoft through the purchase of another product. If the market demands hardware/software integration (like in a phone or tablet) or making money by giving software away (like Google), they struggle. This business model rigidity is present in almost all companies, so Microsoft is not uniquely troubled.

Q: Most of the tablets will use mobile networks to connect to the internet. Do you think the world is ready with an infrastructure that supports this growth in access via mobile networks?

This is a good question because the growth of mobile broadband is a major enabler (or constraint) on growth. Fortunately, the roll-out of mobile broadband is fairly predictable and it looks good. There are some challenges for operators long term in paying for the infrastructure, but they don’t lack for financing today and the business case for more infrastructure seems to be very attractive. It will take time and it won’t be even globally, but the incentives are clearly there. A lot of value is being created with mobile computing and much of that value will end up paying for the bandwidth.

Q: How about the App Market. You posted recently a chart showing how fast developers are buying thickets for both Google and Apple developer events. You said that it is one signal of the Post PC Era. What will be the importance of apps on the next years. Do you think Apps market will be more important than hardware, content and OS market?

Developers are one more sign that something big is happening. It’s not the only sign and may not be the cause of the change, but it’s yet another signal. But apps are a phenomenon that will result in something bigger than we can imagine. The way to think about apps is as a new medium, similar to the emergence of radio, television, cinema and even books. The app is a new art form as well as something that provides functional value. We don’t know whether the app phenomenon will be tied to one platform or will evolve to something like HTML5, a common standard. But the value of having an app for everything is plainly evident. The economics, creative energy and dynamism of apps cannot be overestimated. I will write more about this subject as I think it’s one of the most important consequences of the post-PC era.

Q: What’s the destiny of the PC? Are they on their last years?

Again, it’s not so much that PCs will disappear any more than mainframes or servers have disappeared. What is more likely is that they will be used for isolated, focused jobs. The “end of an era” is the end of growth, not the end of existence. The PC has arguably reached end of growth in most developed markets. There is still strong growth in emerging economies but even there, much of that growth will probably be replaced with smart devices growth.

Q: We had the Mainframe Era, the Terminal Era, the MiniPC Era, The PC Era and now we starting the PostPC Era. Do you imagine what Era we’ll se after the tablets? When do you think is it going to happen?

I don’t try to be a futurist who can see with clarity technological change. I try to see the patterns of markets through the motivation of companies. With that in mind, my answer will be that large companies will acquire promising new technologies from start-up companies and implement products with global distribution. To see the future you therefore need to look at what small companies are doing today. I note that there is a lot of innovation in new communication methods (social media) and new input methods around gestures and display technology. I am skeptical about the power of voice controls.

I’m most confident that there will be a re-definition of television, a “socialization” of almost all media. So I’ll abstain from answering directly what happens after the Tablet Era. Perhaps something more personal and more of a companion than a tool.