An article from the Washington Post caught my eye this morning. Written by the former editor-in-chief of Engadget, Joshua Topolsky, it was titled With interface advances and the cloud, the PC isn’t dying; it’s coming to life. I scratched my head for a moment and thought, “No one even told me the PC was sick, how could it be dying already?” Voraciously reading on, I learned that it wasn’t yet ready to meet its maker and be put to rest (phew). Like the Phoenix reborn from ashes, the PC is seeing a fresh renewal. Its wings are taking shape and it’s heading into the Cloud.
Great, the PC is behaving less and less like the old familiar PC we’ve come to both love and mildly dislike at times. Even within our office here, we’ve been transitioning over to Google Docs and I’ve already felt the chains of one-computing-space oppression being lifted. I can save and edit my document from anywhere: Freedom, you smell like warm cinnamon buns. Many of the advancements within the consumer PC market have been to slim down the physical computer and bring everything to a simple Web browsing interface in an effort to de-clutter your life from windows and file systems. Topolsky closes his article with this inspiring statement, “We’ve crossed over from a long, slow evolution to an explosive revolution in what a computer is and how you use it — and there’s no looking back.” I answer back “Yes, yes, yes! Show me the Web!”
But wait, what about industrial and embedded computing? All this sounds like a utopian world that only half of the inhabitants get to share. There’s a fairly large portion of us who have to stand outside in the cold, enviously peering in at young, happy consumers carelessly tapping away at their shiny, palm-sized gadgets and gizmos of pearly white and sable black. Sigh. Why are we still using PS2 ports? While the personal computer makes light-speed advances for well, personal use, the industrial and embedded world seems to be stuck with a busted hyperdrive. This is the nature of computing within this space.
Topolsky’s statement that our usage of computers has changed and will continue to completely change can still be applied here, though. Maybe we’re not heading into the Cloud just yet, but we’re moving out of the scope of traditional industrial and embedded systems. Many of our customers are placing computers in locations that until recently, were only seen in those locations in Hollywood films about the future. But these computers are very much typical computing machines, and rely on tangible storage devices like IDE hard drives (say what?), optical drives and operating systems like Windows XP. We’re not on the heels of the consumer technology market, we’re treading in its settled dust.
And all this makes perfect sense. Consumers are agile. Businesses can be slow to adapt. As we get excited about the latest technological advancements, we ultimately know it might be awhile until we see those materialize on an industrial motherboard. Let the consumers be the guinea pigs. We’ll patiently wait for them to work the kinks out. And this is quite true, as we’ve seen with Intel’s Sandy Bridge “not a recall.”
To bring an alternate viewpoint, say a more positive edge to all this, I would like to consider the industrial and embedded computing space’s revolution. Again, it might not be entirely to the Cloud just yet, but we’re quickly advancing nonetheless. Our computer systems continue to get smaller and more efficient with each processing platform innovation. Flash storage devices and embedded OS’s allow us to slim down the footprint even further. Our computers might not be sleek and glossy, but they don’t look like computers either. They get tucked under taxi drivers’ seats, they get mounted in the ceilings of grocery stores, they get installed on the walls of meat processing facilities and then hosed off (yum), and they get to take flight in helicopters. Wireless functionality and compatibility with DC power sources enables remote deployments where systems are in harsh environments, collecting data all day. No need for human operators; we can sit back and relax in the Cloud.
The real question for us is no longer “Can I put a computer there?” but “Why not put a computer there?” If our technology allows us to think long term, to imagine a future where computers are not breakable, throwaway devices meant to last about a year before the next best thing comes out, but durable, solid (and super small), stand-alone machines that expertly manage a single task, then why not strap a computer to a unmanned aircraft to collect vital information in environments potentially unsafe for humans? (By the way, our computers are being used in unmanned vehicles.)
In the end, I don’t think our future looks so different from the one Topolsky describes. Industrial and embedded technologies may lag behind consumer technologies so that it appears that our paths are diverging. As usual, though, the consumer market is just leading the way while we take a different (albeit longer) path to revolution.