I written before about a transition period to a new era of computing. Earlier this month I gave a keynote talk at the Front-Trends conference in Warsaw.  In preparing this talk I discovered a very interesting graphic created by Asymco for an article about the Rise and Fall of Personal Computing.   It was so interesting that I used it to frame my talk. Here is what my first slide looked like, incorporating the Asymco visualization:

rise-and-fall-pc

This graph is showing market-share of various computing platforms since the very first emergence of what can be characterize as a personal computer.  I urge you to read the Asymco article if you are interested in the details of this visualization.   Keep in mind that it is showing percentage share of a rapidly expanding market. Over on the left edge we are talking about a total world-wide computer population that could be measured in the low hundreds of thousands.  On right we are talking about a market size in the high hundreds of millions of computers.

For my talk, I used the graph as an abstraction of the entire personal computing era. The important thing was that there was a period of around ten years before the Windows/Intel PC platform really began to dominate.  I remember those days. I was a newly graduated software engineer and those were exciting times.  We knew sometime big was happening, we just didn’t know for sure what it was and how it was all going to shake out.  Each year there was one or more new technologies and companies that seems to be establishing themselves  as the dominant platform.  But then something changed and within a year or two somebody else seemed to be winning.  It wasn’t until  the latter part of the 1980′s that the Wintel platform could be identified as the clear winner. That was the beginning of a 20+ year period that, based upon this graph, I’m calling the blue bubble.

While many interesting things (for example, the Web)  happened during the period of the blue bubble, overall it was a much less exciting time to be working in the software industry. For most of us, there was no option other than to work within the confines of the Wintel platform.  There were good aspects to this as a fixed and relatively stable platforms provided a foundation for the evolution of PC-based applications and ultimately the applications were what  was most important from a user perspective. But as a software developer, it just wasn’t the same as that earlier period before the bubble formed. To those of us who were around for the first decade of the PC era there were just too many constraints inside the bubble. There were still plenty of technical challenges, but there wasn’t the broad sense that we were all collectively changing the world.  But then, the blue bubble became normal. Until very recently,  must active software developers have never experienced a professional life outside that bubble.

The most important thing for today is what is happening on the right-hand side of this graph.  Clearly, the big blue bubble is coming to an end. This coincides with what I call the transition from the Personal Computing Era to the Ambient Computing Era.  Many people thank we are already inside the next blue bubble.  That Apple, or Google, or many be even “the Web” has already won platform dominance for the next computing era.  Maybe so, but I doubt it.  Here is a slide I used at the end of my recent talk:

rise-and-fall-ambient

It’s the same graphic.  I only removed the platform legend and changed the title and time line. The key point is that we probably aren’t yet inside the next blue bubble.  Instead, we are most likely in a period that is more similar to the first ten years of the PC Era.  It’s a time of chaotic transition.  We don’t know for sure which companies and technologies map to the colors in the  graph.  We also don’t know the exact time scale;  2013 isn’t necessarily equivalent to 1983.  It’s probably the case that the dominant platform  of the Ambient Computing Age is not yet established. The ultimate winner may  already be out there along with several other contenders.  We just don’t know with certainty how it’s all going to come out.

Things are really exciting again. Times of chaos are times of opportunity. The constraints of the last blue bubble are gone and the next blue bubble isn’t set yet. We all need to drop our blue bubble habits and seize the opportunity to shape the new computing era. It’s a time to be aggressive and to take risks. It’s a time for new thinking and new perspectives.  This is the best of times to be a software developer. Don’t get trapped by blue bubble thinking and don’t wait too long. The window of opportunity will probably only last a few years before the next blue bubble is firmly set. After that it will be decades  until the next such opportunity.

We’re all collectively creating a new era of computing.  Own it and enjoy the experience!

My plan is for this to be the first in a series of posts that talk about specific medium term challenges facing technologists as we move forward in the Ambient Computing Era.  The challenges will concern things that I think are inevitable but which may not be getting enough attention right now. But with attention, we should see significant progress towards solutions over the next five years.

Here’s the first challenge.  I have too many loosely coordinated digital devices and digital services. Everyday, I spend hours using my mobile phone, my tablet, and my desktop Mac PC. I also regularly use a laptop, a FirefoxOS test phone, and my DirecTV set-top box/DVR.  Less, regularly I use the household iPad, an Xbox/Kinect in our family room, and a couple of Denon receivers with network access.   Then, of course, there are various other active digital devices like cameras, a FitBit, runner’s watches, an IPod shuffle, etc.  My car is too old to have much user facing intelligence but I sure that won’t be the case with the next one.

Each of these devices is connected (at least indirectly) to the Internet and most of them have some sort of web browser. Each of them locally hold some of my digital possessions. I try to configure and use services like Dropbox and Evernote to make sure that my most commonly used possessions are readily available on all my general-purpose devices, but sometimes I still resort to emailing things to myself.

I also try to similarly configure all my MacOS devices and all my Android devices. But even so, everything I need isn’t always available on the device I’m using at any instance, even in cases where the device is perfectly capable of hosting it.

Even worse, each device is different in non-essential, but impossible to ignore ways.  I’m never just posting a tweet or reading my favorite new streams.  I’m always doing it on my tablet, or at my desk, or with my phone and the experience is different for each of them in some ways.  In every case, I have to focus as much attention on the device I’m physically using and how it differs from my other devices as I do on the actual task I’m interested in accomplishing.  And, its getting worse. Each new device I acquire may give me some new capability but it also adds to the chaos.

Now, I have the technical skills that enable me to deal with this chaos and get a net positive benefit from most of these devices. But it isn’t where I really want to be investing my valuable time.

I simply want to think about all my “digital stuff” as things that are always there and always available.  No mater where I am or which device I’m using.  When I get a new device, I don’t want to spend a day installing apps and configuring it.  I just want to identify myself and have all my stuff immediately available. I want my stuff to look and operate familiarly.  The only differences should be those that are fundamental to the specific device and its primary purpose.  My attention should always be on my stuff.   Different devices and different services should fade into the background. “Digital footprint” was the term I used my Cloud on Your Ceiling to refer to all this digital stuff.

Is any progress being made towards achieving this? Cloud hosted services from major industry players such as Google and Apple may feel like they are addressing some of these needs. But, they generally force you to commit all your digital assets to a single corporate caretaker and whatever limitations they choose to impose upon you.  Sometimes such services are characterized as “digital lockers”.  That’s not really what I’m looking for. I don’t want to have to go to a locker to get my stuff; I just want it to appear to always be with me and under my complete control.

The Locker Project is something that I discovered while researching this post that sounded like relevant work but it appears to be moribund.  However, it led me to discover an inspirational short talk by one of its developers, Jeremie Miller,  who paints a very similar vision to mine. The Locker Project appears to have morphed in to the Singly AppFabric  product, which seems to be a cloud service for integrating social media data into mobile apps.  This is perhaps a step in the right direction, but not really the same vision.  I suspect there is a tension between achieving the full vision and the short-term business realities of a startup.

So, that’s my first Ambient Computing challenge. Create the technology infrastructure and usage metaphors that make individual devices and services fade into the background and allow us all to focus our attention on actually living our digitally enhanced lives.

I’m interested in hearing about other relevant projects that readers may know about and other challenges you think are important.

(Photo by “IndyDina with Mr. Wonderful”, Creative Commons Attribution License. Sculpture by Tom Otterness)

Does the Web Matter Anymore?

January 25, 2013

Recently a friend of mine asked this question.  His theory was that the open web, as described in the Mozilla Mission no longer mattered because much of what we used to do using web browsers is now rapidly shifting to “apps”.  Why worry about the open web if nobody is going to be using it? [...]

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A Cloud on Your Ceiling?

January 17, 2013

I’ve previously written that we are in the early stages of a new era of computing that I call “The Ambient Computing Era”.  If we are truly entering a new era then it is surely the case that the computers we will be using twenty or more years from now will exist in forms that [...]

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B2G: From Browser to Platform

July 25, 2011

In my post, The Browser is a Transitional Technology, I wrote that I thought  web browsers were really Personal Computing Era applications and that browsers were unlikely to continue to exist as such as we move deeply into the Ambient Computing Era. However,  I expect browser technologies to have a key role in the Ambient [...]

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Web App Platform: Is it a Framework or is it an OS?

May 22, 2011

Recently I’ve had some conversations with some colleagues about how Web IDL is used to specify the APIs that browsers support for web applications.  I think our discussions raised some interesting questions about  the fundamental nature of the web app platform so I wanted to raise those same questions here. Basically, is the browser web [...]

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Combining Mirror Facets

April 29, 2011

In my last couple posts I introduced idea of using Mirrors for JavaScript reflection and took a first look at the introspection interfaces of my jsmirrors prototype. In this post I’m going to look at the other reflection interfaces in jsmirrors and how they are mixed together to provide various levels of reflection privilege. When [...]

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Looking into Mirrors

April 27, 2011

In my last post I introduced the programming language concept of Mirrors and mentioned jsmirrors, the prototype I’ve been working on to explore using mirrors to support reflection within JavaScript.  In this post I’m going to take a deeper look into jsmirrors itself.  I had three goals for my first iteration of jsmirrors: Define basic [...]

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Experimenting with Mirrors for JavaScript

April 25, 2011

A common capability of many dynamic languages, such as JavaScript, is the ability of a program to inspect and modify its own structure.  This capability is generally called reflection. Examples of reflective capabilities of JavaScript include things like the hasOwnProperty and isPrototypeOf methods. ECMAScript 5 extended the reflection capability to JavaScript via functions such as [...]

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Why Mozilla?

March 25, 2011

As somebody who is on record as believing that web browsers are a transitional technology, people occasionally ask me why I decided to go to work for a “browser company” like Mozilla. You can find a big part of the answer here: As we move deeper into The Next Era of Computing there are still [...]

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