A View from David Zax
Amazon’s Remote Processing Vision
An Amazonian future of many screens and few processors.
A patent application envisioning a new future for computing has recently come to light, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is one of the applicants. The patent envisions “a remote display system including a portable display that wirelessly receives data and power from a primary station.” Basically, the idea would be for computing systems wherein most of the processing is done on a base station, and the environment around the base station is populated with numerous “dumb” terminals. This could lead to tablets that are very lightweight, according to the patent application (which is just that–a patent application–and should be taken with a grain of salt).
It’s certainly an appealing vision. Some, though, have criticized the idea on a few counts. First of all, they claim that there’s more science fiction than fact here; after all, people have been looking into ways to wirelessly transmit considerable amounts of power for some time now (see “The Long and Winding Road to Wireless Charging”). Others question how novel the idea of a screen that receives beamed-in content is to begin with–one Slashdot commenter observes that the idea is fundamentally similar, in some ways, as the oldest of old-fashioned computer terminals. “I’ve heard tell that a newfangled contraption called a ‘tele-vision’ displays pictures, even moving pictures, entirely guided by a remote device,” snarks another commenter on Ars Technica. Some are questioning why such a system should be patentable at all. Others note that the vision of a completely “dumb” terminal, in some ways, is a fictitious one; any monitor will need at least a graphics chip at the very least, they say.
In some ways, we’ve seen this trend of offloading processing happen before–and with Amazon devices. Recall that the Kindle Fire was touted to have a browser (Silk) that was “cloud-accelerated,” meaning some processing and rendering was done in the cloud in order to make the web browsing experience faster. (Though in practice, Silk disappointed a number of reviewers.) Amazon explained that vision in a video that came out around the launch of the Fire.
Why is this a vision that’s appealing to Bezos and company? It combines two facets of Amazon’s business: tablets, and cloud computing (or more generally, the idea of remote computing). Fundamentally, though, if we want to envision what this Amazonian future might look like, we should remember the main business that Amazon is in: online retailing. The arguments that were made about the Kindle Fire–that it was, in a sense, an underpriced terminus that shunted users into Amazon’s vast stores of content–would presumably be true of the system Bezos envisions here. If Amazon could develop a next generation of ultralight tablet monitors that link to an Amazon-branded processing station, that’s more and more eyeballs directed towards Amazon’s content. Depending on how effective such a device was at shepherding users into Amazon’s catalogue of goodies, the company might be able to steeply discount such a system or even give components of it away for free (“Try the new Kindle Hearth Base Station with Special Offers…”).
Much of this necessarily remains speculative for now. Indeed, paging through the patent application is something like reading good sci-fi. Bezos also foresees an era in which lightweight displays take a variety of form factors–not just as tablets, but also as windshield displays or even Google Glass-like eyewear.