Your (Pocket) Personal Computer
Nearly 50 years ago, J. C. R. Licklider imagined computers as a communications device. When we look at today’s smart mobile devices, the BlackBerries and the Treos and the Nokia Communicators, we underestimate their importance. Their capabilities are relatively limited. Compared to phones, they’re big and bulky, but compared to notebook computers, they have frustratingly small screens and keyboards. Few people have them. They don’t really feel like our most personal computers.
But I think they are. The power of such devices will grow rapidly, as did the power of the PC. And they will become intensely personal, because they will be able to do more for you than anything that is as portable. They will thus naturally become the focus of improvements in connectivity and communication.
Much as the Google query you make from your home runs on machines located elsewhere, software run on behalf of your pocket PC could reside in remote server farms, on computers you time-share with others – but that you don’t have to maintain.
Does this mean that desktop PCs as we know them will disappear? I’m not suggesting that. Rather, I think, we will find that these larger computers with keyboards become less personal, become shared devices. In my household, many of us have accounts on several different computers, which share our personal information among them. None of these is “my” computer, yet all are, when they need to be. The individual machines are becoming access points to my presence on the network.
Your smart phone will benefit greatly from the next 100-fold improvement bestowed by Moore’s Law. It can acquire more sensors, becoming a personal medical scanner, tricorder, translator, recorder, and interpreter. There are many worthy dreams for such devices!
Note to Government: Think Big
Engelbart’s research found strong support from the government. But that was a long time ago. Federal funding for speculative research has now, largely, dried up; agencies looking for short-term paybacks now typically sponsor work on specific problems rather than the kinds of pure research, of unfettered thinking, that leads to the birth of whole new industries, as Engelbart’s did.
During the Clinton administration, I served as cochair of the President’s Commission on Information Technology (PITAC). Fellow members of the committee and I recommended that the government think big and recognize that computers will be key to all economic growth in the future, not just the growth of the computer industry itself. We argued that there were industries where, without new computer applications, the United States would become substantially less competitive.
Historically, the most cutting-edge research in computing was sponsored for national defense, with a very long-term view. We recommended that the government fund, in a similar way, a number of large computing projects. Each of these projects would cut across disciplines and make different assumptions (call them guesses) about what the future would be like. Each would create an imagined environment and determine what it would be like to live in it. The projects would result, we hoped, in inspirational prototypes, NLS-like demonstrations of how the great advances in computing and communication, the next 100-fold improvement, could be put to use by the next generation of Engelbarts.
The committee’s recommendations were not followed. Though a President Gore would have been supportive of them, the current administration has not been, and the long-term trend toward a short-term focus in government-sponsored research continues. The young Doug Engelbarts of today will be hard pressed to find support for their dreams.
What a shame. It’s possible now, more than ever, to augment human intellect. We should boldly set our sights on Engelbart’s goal. John Markoff has done us all a great service by writing a book that reminds us of the great value of thinking big.
Bill Joy was the architect of Berkeley Unix and a cofounder of Sun Microsystems. He is now a partner at venture-capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers.