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Fashionable Computers Start Disappearing and Things Start Thinking

A while ago my Mom bought her first computer, an iMac. At the time of her purchase, the fact that it looked cute and didn't require a mess of wires to hook-up was more important than all that megahertz and RAM stuff that she didn't yet understand.

Gateway is now introducing a line of radically slimmed down desktop machines, as are Sony and Compaq. Intel is showing off prototypes that look like brightly colored Aztec pyramids or sleek modern sculpture. A company that makes a popular line of web servers is packing their industrial electronics in a blue cube barely bigger than your hand. At the same time, AOL and Microsoft want to be everywhere anywhere, via a new generation of handheld and TV set-top devices. Palm Computing's latest offering comes in a sleek aluminum case that would not be out of place in a Klingon Warrior's vest pocket.

So what? Well, there are folks that believe this tells us that we are witnessing both the first and final days of the personal computer as Everyman's status object and fashion statement. They contend that when a technology gains more attention and confers more status as a fashion statement than its work-a-day purpose, it's probably about to disappear. That's "disappear", as in to be removed from view.

Confused? Let's look at an analogous situation. When was the last time you thought of the multi-gigawatt power plant on the other end of the wire that connects it to the motor you never hear in the compressor that you never think of in the fridge? All four pieces of technology just mentioned used to be big deals in the marketing of electric power, as well as the industrial design of fridges. Remember those old machines with the fat, round flying saucer-like compressors on top? If you've never seen one for yourself, look for one in the background next time you're watching a 1930's vintage movie.

Today, the most important thing about picking a place to keep the beer cold, is how well it disappears into the decor of our faux colonial kitchen. The last thing that we want from a reliable, ubiquitous technology is for it to call attention to itself. It should just be there, and be working the next time you feel like having some ice-cream. Thus, we hear the prediction that after the current phase of computer and telecom product design, the devices will begin to fade into the background of our environment. Their services, though, will still be there, but more reliably, like the light that comes on when you open the fridge.

What will emerge from this reinvented model for computing and telecommunications? Individually, the services will seem trivial from our present point of view. Milk cartons may access the internet-grocery store when they get low, and order replacements for themselves. A necktie might tell a business friend's electronic rolodex what your email address is, as you shake his hand. Pages in electronic books and catalogues, made with electronic paper, will update themselves when new information is available. Electronic writing tablets will know who is holding them and what time it is, and what documents will be required for that damn meeting. Web-based information will be accessible from not only a PC, but from hand-held devices and previously "dumb" objects such as the tread of your car's wearing tires.

So, what will emerge ? For those that look forward, it is a spectrum of opportinuty for those that see the Whole Systems page.

Steve Solomon, June 14, 1999

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