Do you remember when software was something consumers and small businesses bought in a box off a shelf in a store? Today, that sounds like a quaint way of packaging something that will live out its useful life on a computing device. But now, even the device itself may go away. Or, at least, the device as we know it, as a large box on a desk or a mobile device that only just fits into a pocket or handbag.
Anything that relies on display, on a connection to the internet, or on data storage, can potentially be reduced to a computer chip with projection capabilities. The best clue to that came last month at Lenovo Tech World in San Francisco, when CEO Yuanqing Yang, together with actor Ashton Kutcher, unveiled the new Moto Z phone and its family of snap-on add-ons called Moto Mods.
One of these Mods was a snap-on projector called the Insta-Share Projector, which projects a screen on to any surface, and picks up finger gestures in order to make the display interactivate. Today, the Insta-Share can project anything from a virtual keyboard for the phone to a 70-inch wall display, more than big enough to watch movies. In future, it may provide even bigger displays from a smaller device.
Add this to the a new device launched by Sony at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, the Xperia Projector, which projects an interactive display on to any surface, and you start seeing a trend emerge. And then add to these the comments made by Google CEO Sundar Pichai in his “Founders’ Letter” in April, and you have a revolution in the making: “… The next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away.
“Over time, the computer itself – whatever its form factor – will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI (Artificial Intelligence) first world”.
The Xperia Projector had already signalled this shift. Right now, the projector is an object the size of a small PC tower. But, with the rapid advance of miniaturisation, it’s easy to envisage it shrinking dramatically.
Once you can cram its intelligence into a keyring, pendant or even a ring, for example, it could be the end of the smartphone as we know it. In a restaurant, all you’d need is a serviette on which to project the interface of the “phone”.
In a few years’ time, then, it could be a good idea to invest in serviettes, but certainly not in smartphone hardware. “Today we are dependent on our phones, but as the communication paradigm shifts to new forms of communication, we want to be at the forefront of new ideas,” said Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai at a media briefing in Tokyo.
He envisaged a company that would focus on building greater intelligence into devices and services, rather than focusing exclusively on the hardware. “At Sony we have a lot of different technology and a lot of great products that push the boundaries of communication intelligently,” he said. On the other side of the world, at the EMC World conference in Las Vegas in May, the flip side of this vision emerged from a keynote address by Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, in explaining why his company had paid a record $67 billion for storage leaders EMC.
“It all begins with the modern data centre,” he said. “Once, the data centre was used to manage the back office and make it more efficient. Now, it has to support the business as the business becomes more digital. Every company has to become a software company to compete and succeed.”
He outlined an even more vigorous vision than Hirai’s: “The future will be defined by technology that is so powerful, it will be difficult to comprehend. 2001 was the beginning of a new model for computer delivery. Today those marvels seem like relics from a museum. Processing power increases 10 times every five years. Think 15 years from now, to 2031. We’ll have a 1 000-fold increase over what we have today.”
This will mean less and less dependence on storage on devices and premises. In the same way software and the internet became invisible as it evolved, so will storage. And if all you need is the interface to a computer, rather than the computer itself, even tablets and computers will become invisible.