Sign In

Communications of the ACM


How Many Computers Will You Own?

Geeky Ventures Founder Greg Linden

How many computing devices will you have in ten years? Two? Six? Just one?

Today, I have five: a mobile phone, laptop, desktop computer, TiVo, and game system.

What will happen in the next 5-15 years? Small devices are becoming more powerful, but our computing needs are growing. Will we want more devices as our data streams expand and computational desires grow? Or will most people need only a single small but powerful device to meet their needs?

Some say that mobile phones are getting powerful enough to be the only computing device people have. For example, researchers at IBM argued that most people will have nothing but a mobile phone soon and that "the PC will fade into a role similar to today's view of the once mighty mainframe." A Google executive claimed that mobile phones will be the main way people interact with the internet soon and that "in three years time, the deskop will be irrelevant." Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed to the power of a mobile device combined with data and computation in the cloud, arguing that most would find they need little more.

Others argue for more devices. Microsoft, having largely realized its original dream of a PC on every desk, now appears to be pushing the idea of everyone owning multiple PC-like devices, including a phone, traditional PC, and entertainment system. The iPad was seen as a potentially unifying device, but people who have tried to abandon both their laptop and phone to use an iPad exclusively often have been disappointed.

As I see it, there are two problem with unifying around a single mobile device any time soon. First, there is the input/output problem on such tiny devices with their minuscule keyboards and screens. Until we have both high quality and inexpensive virtual I/O -- perhaps retinal displays combined with virtual keyboards or voice recognition -- it is simply too difficult to do serious work on a mobile device.

Second, as we all know from watching Moore's Law over the years, as computers become more powerful, we always seem to find more for them to do. Our capacity for computation seems limitless. We are not satisfied with playing the games of the 80s on a mobile device as powerful as the computers of the 80s; we want the most powerful hardware available to transport us to stunningly realistic virtual worlds. We are not content to peer at documents through a 3" display; we want to surround ourselves with two 30" displays side-by-side when we work. We started producing data from our every movement, taking notes on our every thought, broadcasting them all to everyone, and expecting them all to be immediately available from anywhere. Our computational needs (and perhaps our vanity) know no bounds.

As I see it, we will continue to have many specialized devices, our need for each driven by our insatiable demand for more. More fun, more work, more access, more computation.

What do you think? How many devices do you think you will own in ten years?

Read CACM in a free mobile app!
Access the latest issue, plus archived issues and more
ACM Logo
  • ACM CACM apps available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and Android platforms
  • ACM Digital Library apps available for iOS, Android, and Windows devices
  • Download an app and sign in to it with your ACM Web Account
Find the app for your mobile device