Most would agree that we are now deep in the 3rd era of computing, but what does this really mean? Some look at the 1st era as being defined by the mainframes and minis of the 1950’s thru to the early 80’s, the 2nd era being defined by the desktop PC generation starting in the 1980’s, and now this 3rd era that is driven by the innovation in smartphones and tablets. While this is all perfectly reasonable and true, my friend and colleague Andrew Sloss recently wrote a blog that got me thinking, aren’t these “eras of computing” really highlighted by who the actual users of the devices are, and more importantly, who is driving the features of these devices? In the case of the 3rd era we find ourselves in, I would say that for the first time the everyday consumer is actually driving the definition of computing and what it means.
Building on Andrew’s ideas, the first mainframes and minis really were driven by engineers and accountants to crunch numbers. With the advent of the desktop PC, the office worker became the main user to drive the hardware and software. As consumers started using computing at home for non-office uses they were presented with an interesting challenge – figure out how to use something fundamentally defined for office workers for all your home needs (browsing, email, and entertainment).
While it is true that OEMs sold “home PCs” it is also true that they were fundamentally rebadged and remarketed PCs that were essentially designed for the office worker. The architecture of the hardware and the availability of software were all geared towards meeting the needs of the enterprise office worker. Over the years, many companies tried to create a fundamentally different consumer experiences, but whether it was the hardware technology that was not ready, the software choices were not there, or the connectivity was not available, they did not succeed.
Not until now. The last 3-5 years has seen the meteoric rise of in the range of processor solutions that are available. The ARM ecosystem of silicon partners like TI, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Freescale have been delivering more highly optimized System on Chips (SOC). New players such as Broadcom, Samsung and LG are appearing every few months. Now dual and even quad core processors incorporating the Cortex-A9 or Cortex-A15 are appearing that bring the performance of multi-core without the sacrifice in battery life we associate with multi-core. But maybe more relevant in the new era is that these partners have been focusing on building the entire smart system needed to make great consumer experiences. At MWC NVIDIA demonstrated their latest and greatest Kal-El running console class gaming on a tablet. And TI’s Brian Carlson has shown how the new OMAP5 incorporates specific technology designed to meet the most demanding needs of the consumer. (Find more on the announcements and videos from MWC in my blog as well as my colleague Kerry's blog.)
But it isn’t about just the SoC either. The software ecosystem has exploded over the last few years in conjunction with the availability of these SoCs. Corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Apple and HP have made huge investments in software for the ARM processors. Others such as QNX Software Systems, Canonical and Opera are finding renewed opportunities in this 3rd era of computing enabled by the ARM ecosystem. All of this new software is being designed ground up to meet specific consumer usage models and demands for capabilities.
I suspect this even brings new opportunities for legacy PC application providers. While some may be hoping their customers jump to the next version, others realize this is a new era and they have the opportunity to utilize their brands to create new exciting apps for consumers. In this new computing era, consumers are not seeking tired legacy applications to run on their old devices; they want to get the cool new apps suited to their individual wants and needs. Even if those legacy applications provide needed functionality, they may not do it on the new devices, for the right price.
So while the last 50 years of computing have been defined by, and designed for, business, today’s 3rd era of computing has finally placed the consumer at the forefront. Whether the ARM ecosystem has grown sufficiently in breadth and depth to provide the right technologies; or there is now a competitive environment which is providing more consumer choice in computing; or today’s consumer is that much smarter and is now demanding technology right for them; the fact is that smarter devices are now being delivered that fundamentally address a smarter consumers’ demand for information, communication, entertainment, networking, mobility and efficiency.
As I said, it is the week before Computex. For those not familiar with Computex, it is the electronics tradeshow of Asia with 100,000 plus people converging on Taiwan to do business. While 2011 has already shown clear evidence of how powerful the innovation within the ARM ecosystem is, I expect Computex will provide further evidence of the impact of this innovation in the 3rd era of computing. Building on the momentum from Consumer Electronic Show (CES), to Mobile World Congress (MWC), and even Embedded Systems Conference (ESC), we are seeing the growth and success of tablets linking into the “internet of things” as part of the 3rd era of computing. I anticipate we will see lots of news from the usual players in the ARM ecosystem as well as a few new players. Stay tuned to @ARMMobile and @ARMCommunity on Twitter, ARMflix YouTube channel, and the ARM blogs to see what rises above the rest at Computex. We’ll let you know what we like and ask you to do the same. Maybe together we can predict how smarter devices for smarter consumers will shape the 3rd era of computing over the next 20 years.
Jeff Chu, Mobile Computing Director at ARM, has been on the forefront of ultra mobile computing for over 10 years now. From webpads to smart displays to UMPC there has always been the criticism that it's not a real PC. Well, now with smartphones sales exceeding PCs and tablet shipments blowing by 10M on the way to 100M, the computing world has flipped and low power mobile products are the preferred way to consume content, communicate and interact with the web. To quote Victor Hugo, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
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