Future shock: The PC of 2019

What's in store for everybody's go-to computer? Watch the cool video from MIT's Media Lab for one vision.

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In fact, much of what's ahead is already here, at least in primitive form. "Anything you'd likely see in 10 years is available now," says Fred Killeen, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp., explaining that most technological innovations are available somewhere in some form years before they become mainstream.

Consider smartphones and wireless. Those are the precursors to what's on the horizon. Similarly, the advances taking place on the back end today -- specifically, cloud computing and virtualization, along with ever-increasing levels of bandwidth -- are laying the foundation for what's ahead. These technologies will continue to take data and storage off individual devices, allowing users with the right credentials to access the information from anywhere at any time with any device.

You will no longer need to store everything on a hard drive or transfer data to a USB stick, says Randy Adams, founder and CEO of Searchme Inc., a search engine company in Mountain View, Calif. "Mobile devices will be almost disposable, because information will be up in the cloud," he says.

However, tomorrow's PC will truly be personal, customized with the software you choose and the trove of personal data it will work with -- including, among other things, credit card numbers, the electronic "keys" to your car and the biometrics that secure the whole package.

Such big changes won't take place overnight, of course, and the new technologies won't be adopted universally. After all, some companies are still using green-screen mainframe interfaces. "So in 2019, you may have a lot of applications that don't look a whole lot different than they do today," Killeen says.

And there are challenges on the path to the PC of 2019. The components of the future device will have to learn to communicate using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. They'll also have to become smarter, "learning" to work under the confines of social conventions. (You don't want that wristwatch-style PC blurting out that it's time for your heart pills while you're meeting with the CEO, do you?) And they'll have to have appropriate verification and security layers, says Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research. But all of this will come together in time, and it's already on the way.

"The PC of 2019 will look more like something that comes out of the iPhone than out of what we currently have on the desktop or laptop," says Michael Zyda, director of the GamePipe Laboratory and a professor of engineering practice in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Southern California. "The PC will fit in your pocket; it will have 10TB of online storage or more -- the size of the entire Library of Congress."

He calls this device "the context machine" and says it will know "your location [and] what you are probably looking for and will sense when a friend is nearby and remind you of their name and the last thing you spoke with them about."

The context machine will preload itself with the information you require, Zyda says, adding that "it will be your phone, your e-mail, your office, your social secretary and confidant, your entertainment center, your game machine."

It will just be part of life, he says, and it will be so personalized that "there will not be the artificial distinction between home and office device. It will be your device."

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Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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