The next battleground: The 4th Era of Personal Computing

The smartphone wars are over. Apple and Google won. Intel, Microsoft, Blackberry and others lost. But this is old, old news. The smart money has already moved on. The next platform battles are already well underway.

Understanding where the new battlegrounds have moved to is vital for anybody in the tech sphere. Even if you're not in tech, knowing where the tech world is going next is key to future success. It should inform your business strategy, your partnership strategy, and probably your personal financial investment strategy. 

The fourth era of personal computing

I believe we are moving into the fourth era of personal computing. The first era was characterized by the emergence of the PC. The second by the web and the browser, and the third by mobile and apps.

The fourth era of computing is a potent combination of technologies and an alphabet soup of computing buzzwords:

  • IOT (Internet of Things, including wearables)
  • AR (augmented reality)
  • Natural interfaces (voice, gesture, and expressions)
  • 5G networking
  • PAs (personal assistants)
  • AI (artificial intelligence)
  • CaaS (conversation as a service)
  • Social networks (or the "life platforms" that they are evolving into)

The fourth personal computing platform will be a combination of IOT, wearable and AR-based clients using speech and gesture, connected over 4G/5G networks to PA, CaaS and social networking platforms that draw upon a new class of cloud-based AI to deliver highly personalized access to information and services.

To understand what you can expect from this fourth era, keep reading. First, a quick explainer on what it takes for the fourth era to happen, which helps us figure out the timing we all need to plan for.

Moore's Law + Bell's Law + The DATA SPIRAL

This fourth era of computing comes about as a natural consequence of Moore's Law playing out, and also Bell's Law (a new class of computers emerges about every decade) taking it's course. Computing devices at the edge are getting smaller and cheaper, making IOT and wearable applications viable. In a seeming paradox computers are also getting exponentially bigger and more capable in the cloud, powering breakthroughs in pattern recognition, cognitive computing, deep learning and all manner of artificial intelligence.

In my previous post, I described the importance of the data spiral, the idea that data is collected using value created from a previously-collected, lesser data set. Services are created that operate using a complex data set. The service is designed to collect a new data set that can then be used to deliver new  value and collect yet another new data set. A spiral of value creation. Think of it as the Moore's Law of data, if you like.

The data spiral is essential to evolving the next generations of artificial intelligence. Deep learning algorithms need data to munch on so help them learn about the world. 

If you combine the power of the data spiral with the power of Moore's Law and Bell's Law, it leads to a new era of computing, what I am choosing to call the fourth era of personal computing. And it's starting in limited ways now, and really takes off starting in about 2020, with the full platform in place by 2025. Think about it: you only got your first glimpse of an iPhone less than 10 years ago, and look how the mobile revolution has taken over the world.

The fourth era of personal computing

So what does the fourth era of personal computing look like? It's a world of smart objects, smart spaces, voice control, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. Screens largely disappear, possibly including your smartphone, which today has become the indispensible remote control for our lives. You might still use a smartphone to perform some tasks in much the same way we still use PCs to achieve some tasks. For example, I'm writing this post on a Macbook, not my iPhone. But by 2025, for most daily tasks, I think we will be ditching the smartphone and will access most information and services using our voices, gestures, and with the help of personal assistant services, chatbots, messaging services, and other AI-based interfaces. Social networks will blossom into "life platforms" able to connect you to people, brands, and services. Sophisticated chatbots will front many of these interactions and help you do everything from buying stamps, to organizing a birthday party.

Want to book a weekend away? You will tell your personal assistant what you want in plain language: "Find me two flights to Austin the weekend of my birthday that gets us home by 5 o'clock on Sunday and recommend a hotel near 6th street".

Your PA will understand all the complexity embedded in your request and then find you the best deals from whatever flight and hotel aggregation services you trust. It will do all this using an understanding of your preferences and needs that it has built over time through working with you, much the same way a good human PA might do.

You might talk to your PA using a device in your home (think Amazon Echo today), your smartphone, an in-ear wearable, your connected car, or whatever other Internet-connected microphone you happen to have near you at the time.

Your PA will also help you through your day, offering you reminders, coaching, and support. "Steve, now would be a good time to collect the dry cleaning. Don't forget to pick up milk while you're out." Or for the memory-challenged amongst us (like I am), a personal assistant could whisper into our ears via our smart earbuds: "Steve, this is Gary, you met him last year. He's friends with Buzz and works at Adidas."

Need to do a load of laundry? Tell your washing machine what you want: "These whites are extra dirty so give them a good wash, and finish when I get home from work". The washer figures out to wash the clothes hot, add steam, and do an extra wash cycle for heavy soil. It starts the load an hour and twenty minutes before your expected arrival time. It finishes up right around the time you walk through your front door. How does it know your schedule? Simple, it's friends with your personal assistant and gets an easy consult.

Microsoft HoloLens demo of a weather object. You might place such an object on your coffee table, on the wall in your hall, on the dash of your car, or anywhere in your environment you'd like.

Microsoft HoloLens demo of a weather object. You might place such an object on your coffee table, on the wall in your hall, on the dash of your car, or anywhere in your environment you'd like.

The fourth era of computing is one filled with virtual objects rather than app interfaces. Why hunt, peck and scroll through a few screens on your phone to find out the weather forecast when you can either just ask your PA, or glance at the virtual weather object you placed on your coffee table.


MIT's "Enchanted umbrella" shows how information can be delivered in simple, new and interesting ways - no more weather app needed.

MIT's "Enchanted umbrella" shows how information can be delivered in simple, new and interesting ways - no more weather app needed.

Or better still, just glance at your umbrella by the front door, and if the handle is glowing softly that means it's going to rain and you should take it along with you. Yep, that's a thing. My friend David Rose over at MIT created an "Enchanted Umbrella" that does just that. His book, Enchanted Objects, is well worth the read.

Expect a world filled with smart objects, and to be spending your time in smart spaces that are able to understand and respond to the needs of the people that inhabit them. We will enjoy myriad new ways to interact with information and services. And we will start to form relationships with digital personal assistants that help us through our day.

The fourth era is one of simpler, more natural interfaces, personalized assistance services, virtual objects, chatbots, life platforms, and more. I'll be exploring these ideas in future posts, including a discussion on how we might prefer these technologies to evolve. There are many open questions to be answered. For example, who would a personal assistant ultimately answer to? You, or its provider? 

What do you think about the fourth era? Make sense? How do you see these technologies combining in the future to create an entirely new platform? I'd love to hear your feedback in comments.