The Computer for the Room

The computer on your desk. The computer in your hand. And the computer for the room.

The definition of the personal computer is expanding. Ever since the first PCs appeared on the market in the 1970’s, computers have been things we put on our desks. Even the laptop, renamed the notebook after too many lawsuits, works best on a desk. We interact with these computers with a keyboard and some sort of pointing device – either a mouse or a trackpad.

Beyond technical and physical considerations, the definition of a personal computer encompasses several important social constructs. Personal computers are general purpose, not single purpose. They run software that can be installed by the user – though the manufacturer will always pre-install some software. Most importantly, there are few barriers to entry to writing software for that computer. Manufacturers of personal computers actively promote the development of new software for their machines. Recently, having a personal computer has meant the ability to connect to the Internet – specifically the Web.

And until about 2007, that’s what a computer was: the machine on your desk that ran software, most importantly a web browser. Phones, video game consoles, set-top boxes, and graphing calculators were electronic devices, not computers.

These days, Apple is routinely excoriated for their App Store policies. But they don’t get enough credit for how much they changed the ecosystem of personal computing in 2007 and 2008 with the iPhone. Apple recognized that the Web democratized software development. Anyone who could afford $10 a month for Dreamhost and learn how to develop on the LAMP stack could create software that ran on every personal computer that was connected to the Internet.

Through Mobile Safari on that first iPhone in 2007, Apple made the full Web (sans Flash) available on a machine that wasn’t a desktop or notebook computer. Anyone who could program a LAMP application could build software for the iPhone. However, it became clear that the Web in 2007 was not quite there yet in terms of standards and browser technology. So native iPhone development was introduced in 2008. Once again, Apple chose a drastically different path than their predecessors – a path in favor of an ecosystem of software development. For $99 a year, anyone could write software for the iPhone.

When compared to the wide open Web, or the no-approval-needed Android Market, Apple’s App Store is correctly regarded as a walled-garden. But it’s an easy walled-garden to get into – especially when compared to software development for RIM or Microsoft phones, or for video game consoles or set-top boxes.

Because of Apple’s moves, the mobile phone industry is no longer about phones. It’s about personal computers that can make phone calls and receive text messages, among many other things. Similarly, the television industry will no longer be about TV shows and movies. It will be about personal computers that deliver television content, among many other things.

Android and iOS, operating systems designed for the computer in your hand, are making their way to the computer for the room. Google has already announced their Google TV initiative: Android computers running a full version of the Google Chrome web browser. Watch the announcement video from Google I/O for all you need to know about Google TV. Similarly, Apple will likely rebrand their closed AppleTV device as iTV, with full support for iOS and the Web. Kevin Rose recently blogged about how disruptive the iTV will be.

User interface is a point of contrast when considering the three kinds of computers. The computer on your desk uses a keyboard and mouse (or trackpad), something unlikely to change. As a workstation, nothing beats the one-hundred physical buttons on the keyboard. The computer in your hand uses touch, specifically multitouch gestures like pinch and swipe. Touch has been a revelation because it’s a natural interface. We already interact with the world around us through touch, but we need high school classes dedicated to learning how to type on a keyboard.

Disappointingly, Google seems to think a wireless keyboard with a trackpad is the way to go for Google TV. The rumor mill is predicting that iPhones and iPads will act as a remote control for the iTV. But there are far more appealing alternatives for the computer for the room. The first is voice. Like touch, it’s a natural interface. Recently, Google launched sophisticated Android voice actions that work surprisingly well. The problem with voice commands is that no one wants to use them in public. It looks silly. But in the privacy of a room, voice commands make a lot of sense. Hopefully voice is available on the Google TV platform.

A third natural interface is gesture and facial recognition: talking with our hands and facial expressions. Here, Microsoft has a huge head start with Kinect for XBox, and we have yet to see if Google and Apple will develop similar technologies. Moving away from the keyboard and mouse combination and towards natural user interfaces will be key for the widespread adoption of computers for the room.

Interestingly, the iPad already works both as a computer in your hand and a computer for the room, just as long you can touch it:

Admittedly, the phrase “computer for the room” is a bit awkward. It doesn’t have the same flow as “mobile computing” or “desktop computing”. So how about “console computing”?

The term console is already overloaded, but it may be appropriate in this case. Nintendo and Playstation systems are already referred to as consoles. The stereo and climate system in a car is controlled by the center console. While computer programmers and system administrators think of a command-line interface when they hear the word console, most people think of a console as a device that’s not quite a computer. It won’t be much of a stretch for people to realize that yes, that thing sitting under their TV, is in fact a computer. And having the Apple and Google brand on those consoles will help change our mindset.

Personal computing for this decade will look very different than what we’ve been used to so far: The computer on your desk. The computer in your hand. And the computer for the room. While the first computers for the room will be geared towards home entertainment, they will evolve into shared computers embedded throughout our lives. They will be in our bathrooms and kitchens, in our office conference rooms and doctors’ waiting rooms. In ten years, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

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