The Future of Computing is 40 Years Ago

The history of computing can be oversimplified as follows:

  • 1950s through the 1970s: Mainframes, in which massive computing and data storage resources were managed remotely in highly controlled data centers. Intelligence and data were highly centralized, accessed through dumb terminals.
  • 1980s through the 1990s: Client-server computing, in which intelligence and data moved to the endpoints of the network as CPU power and storage became dramatically less expensive.
  • 2000s: Cloud computing, in which much of the intelligence and data storage is moving back to highly controlled data centers, but with lots of intelligence and data still at the endpoints.

I believe the fourth major shift in computing will be to revert back to something approaching the mainframe model, in which the vast majority of computing power and data will reside in data centers that are under the tight control of cloud operators using both public and private cloud models.

Smartphones now have more computing power than most PCs did just a few years ago, albeit with much less storage capacity. While the smartphone does not provide corporate users with the form factor necessary to do writing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. with the same ease that a desktop or laptop computer does, the combination of a smartphone’s CPU horsepower coupled with a monitor and keyboard that serves as a dumb terminal would provide the same experience as a desktop or laptop. As proposed by Robert X. Cringely a couple of years ago, I believe that the corporate PC of the future will be a completely dumb terminal with no Internet connection or local storage. Instead, it will have only a monitor and keyboard and will use the smartphone in the corporate user’s pocket as its CPU and connectivity.

Why? Three reasons:

  • It will be more secure. Data breaches are an unfortunate and increasingly common fact of life for virtually every organization. Many data breaches are the result of simple mistakes, such as laptops being stolen out of cars or left behind at TSA checkpoints, but many data breaches are the result of hacking into on-premises, corporate servers that are insufficiently protected. A review of the most serious data breaches reveals that the vast majority of data breaches have occurred from on-premises servers and other endpoints, not cloud providers. Yahoo!’s recent and massive data breach is more exception than rule, since cloud data centers are typically more secure than those on-premises behind a corporate firewall.
  • It will be cheaper. Instead of providing a laptop and/or desktop computer to individual users, companies will be able to provide a much less expensive dumb terminal to their users that will use a smartphone’s intelligence and computing horsepower to provide the laptop or desktop computing experience transparently. Users will be able to sit down at any dumb terminal, authenticate themselves, and enjoy a laptop or desktop experience. Because storage will be in the cloud, there will be no local storage of data, reducing cost and enhancing security. And, if the dumb terminal is stolen, a company is out only a few hundred dollars, not the millions of dollars for which it might be liable if data is breached from a stolen or otherwise compromised device.
  • It will be more controllable. Instead of users having access to two, three or more computing devices, users can be equipped with just one corporate device, a smartphone, that will enable all of their computing experiences. When the employee leaves the company or loses their device, disabling access to corporate data will be easier and more reliable.

In short, the future of computing will be conceptually similar to what our parents and grandparents experienced: computing intelligence and data storage in some remote, secure location accessed by dumb devices (other than our smartphone).