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The Desktop Computer and the Technology Lifecycle

Even though he is known for his more outlandish prognostications, most of what Ray Kurzweil does is not “futurology”, but history. That is as it should be. There is no hope of successfully predicting anything without first identifying patterns in historical development from which to extrapolate. It’s still problematic, given that this process of identifying patterns is vulnerable to the cherry-picking of events that support the most elegant interpretation, and the reliance of the whole enterprise on the unverifiable assumption that patterns we see in history will persist into the future.

Be that as it may, some of his ideas provide a framework in which to think about certain technological developments, in the near term at least.

Here is his seven-stage technology lifecycle, from The Singularity is Near:

1. During the precursor stage, the prerequisites of a technology exist, and dreamers may contemplate these elements coming together. We do not, however, regard dreaming to be the same as inventing,even if the dreams are written down. Leonardo da Vinci drew convincing pictures of airplanes and
automobiles, but he is not considered to have invented either.

2. The next stage, one highly celebrated in our culture, is invention, a very brief stage, similar in some respects to the process of birth after an extended period of labor. Here the inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination, and usually of showmanship to combine methods in a new way and brings a new technology to life.

3. The next stage is development, during which the invention is protected and supported by doting guardians (who may include the original inventor). Often this stage is more crucial than invention and may involve additional creation that can have greater significance than the invention itself. Many tinkerers had constructed finely hand-tuned horseless carriages, but it was Henry Ford’s innovation of mass production that enabled the automobile to take root and flourish.

4. The fourth stage is maturity. Although continuing to evolve, the technology now has a life of its own and has become an established part of the community. It may become to intertwined in the fabric of life that it appears to many observers that it will last forever. This creates an interesting drama when the next stage arrives, which I call the stage of the false pretenders.

5. Here an upstart threatens to eclipse the older technology. Its enthusiasts prematurely predict victory. While providing some distinct benefits, the newer technology is found on reflection to be lacking some key element of functionality or quality. When it indeed fails to dislodge the established order, the technology conservatives take this as evidence that the original approach will indeed live forever.

6. This is usually a short-lived victory for the aging technology. Shortly thereafter, another new technology typically does succeed in rendering the original technology to the stage of obsolescence. In this part of the life cycle, the technology lives out its senior years in gradual decline, its original purpose and functionality now subsumed by a more spry competitor.

7. In this stage, which may comprise 5 to 10 percent of a technology’s life cycle, it finally yields to antiquity (as did the horse and buggy) the harpsichord, the vinyl record, and the manual typewriter).

The desktop computer as a technology has clearly reached maturity. It has long passed the stage of mass adoption, which Kurzweil defines as frequent use by one quarter of the population of developed countries. Competitors are emerging. The PC is at stage 5 or 6, depending on how you rate the success or failure of the iPad and its tablet brethren.

Much has been made of the limitations of tablets. The absence of a reliable and fast form of textual input is probably the thing that is holding them back from mass adoption. They seems to be only suited to consuming content at the moment, rather than creating it. The tablets that we have seen have also been woefully underpowered. An ARM just isn’t going to cut it in a world of high definition video and web content of ever-increasing complexity. Combine this with the closed-down nature of some of the tablet implementations and you have something that, while offering some benefits over traditional PCs and laptops, is unsuitable as a replacement.

Companies like Apple will never understand this. For years, their strategy has been to create products that do less with more panache. Yes, the Apple user experience is extremely polished, but this polish is bought at the expense of versatility and openness. The iPad is great, if you only want to do the things that Apple thinks you should do. They may persuade the Apple hardcore that the future lies in reduced functionality, but most of us will only be wooed by substantially improved functionality. We will not abandon one type of device for another unless everything we can do with the old device can be done with the new one. That includes tinkering, for those so inclined.

Kurzweil counsels against conservatism. It looks like the tablets are the upstart in this instance, but that does not mean desktop computers will live forever. As elsewhere, hegemony in technology is only ever temporary. I don’t know what the technology will look like that will eventually supplant the PC, but maybe it will look something like this.