The Future Of the PC Looks Cloudy

The PC of the future is on your desk. It’s also in your pocket. It’s inside your TV, your car and your refrigerator. The PC of your future doesn’t exist as one discrete tool; instead, it’s a personal network of devices that share data and collectively represent you to the rest of the Internet. By the year 2020, we will abandon our bulky desktops in favor of remote storage, lashing together our favorite music, movies and games with a web of internet-connected devices to build a digital raft of data that will buoy us through the ebb and flow of our daily lives.

But what does a future computing among the clouds look like? As my coworker and esteemed counsel Nate Ralph mentioned in PCWorld Podcast #109, personal computing is abandoning the yoke of a discrete desktop and evolving into a streaming service accessible from any web-connected device.

In the future you can still build a powerful desktop PC with three monitors and a 10 petabyte hard drive, but you might find it more convenient to subscribe to Google Cloud and link all your devices and digital download accounts together under a single cloud computing service.

Of course in the future, major service providers will gobble up smaller services to become the digital megacorps we’ve always been secretly dreaming of. Only now are we beginning to see the balkanization of virtual services among different mobile phone providers; platform-agnostic cloud computing services like MobileMe, Google Apps and Microsoft's Windows Azure are just the beginning. As much as I would like to predict a warm and loving future in which we all unite beneath one free and open Internet, I think it’s far more likely that in the future you will pick one corporate camp that best matches your computing needs and stick within it.

But how do I keep my data private?

In the far-flung future of 2020, you shouldn’t have any secrets from Big Brother Google. As ex-CEO Eric Schmidt once said, “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

If you think otherwise, make sure to shop around and find a cloud computing company that offers the best privacy guarantee; in the future, there will be enough competition among providers that you should have no trouble finding an encrypted cloud computing service that suits your unique needs. Accessing the Google file-sharing servers via GMail and Google Docs is already encrypted via SSL, and by 2020 we’ll see a whole host of competitors spring up as broadband internet access becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous in the global market.

What if I need to make movies, play games or perform other demanding computational tasks?

You can still build your own monster hexacore gaming rig if you feel the urge, but who wants the hassle of constant hardware upgrades? it will be simpler to cough up a monthly fee in return for the ability to remotely access powerful computers from any device, anywhere; in 2020, you’ll have the option to subscribe to cloud computing services that provide remote access to cutting-edge server farms filled with high-powered performance machines.

You’ll likely have to work under a bandwidth cap, but for a flat monthly fee you’ll be able to crunch numbers, play games and edit media from a netbook, tablet or even your TV. The success or failure of the OnLive game service will be our bellwether; if contemporary cloud gaming services like Gaikai and OnLive thrive, we can expect to see similar services spring up for any task that requires a high-end PC.

What if I lose network access?

Tough. Relying on the Internet for all of our day-to-day activities has a plethora of perks and only one major drawback: you need reliable Internet access. Local networks will do in a pinch, but in the future we will see public Internet access reach parity with food, water and shelter as social services critical to the smooth function of an enlightened society.

Faster, cheaper broadband and the efforts of many major cities to expand municipal wireless will help, as will the spread of 4G cellular wireless networks. If nothing else works, there's always Starbucks.To the cloud!

Alex Wawro has his head in the clouds.

Previously in this series...

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