The first computer that I used beyond school was a Hyundai PC way back in 1991. Computers those days had to be treated with a lot of respect. The rooms they worked out of were treated with respect, too—they were air-conditioned, slippers and shoes were kept out, and almost no one booted a PC without having a bath! These were also large machines with a whole lot of paraphernalia. The PC I am talking about had a shelf just to accommodate the floppy drives—running a word file needed at least four of them to be booted one after the other. Today, I write this piece out of a PC not much bigger than a USB dongle plugged onto the HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) port of my flatscreen TV. How times have changed!
To speak about how computers have shrunk is a bit of a cliche and I am also guilty of beating around that bush more than needed. But we don’t seem to be speaking much about how the computer has gone mobile enough to go anywhere. Of course, we have smartphones which are powerful computers capable of doing anything; however, the computer itself is still thought of as a CPU-input-output mix. They are changing fast, so much so that you can buy one in a box smaller than that of a feature phone, as in the case of the Intel Compute Stick from iBall or Panache in the Indian market. Also, priced at around R10,000, they are among the cheapest computers available in the market.
But they are not really cheap when you look at the fact that a good tablet powered by Intel and running Windows or Android could be a bit cheaper and will actually come with a touchscreen. What will a first-time buyer look at initially? We can safely assume that she would go for the tablet as the compute stick will need her to find a large screen with an HDMI port to complete the PC output. Also, they still need extra power input and that is a bit of a disadvantage. When you consider that they offer roughly the same processing power as a tablet, it is not a big advantage at the moment.
It is, however, just a matter of time before they start coming with inbuilt power storage and are powered by processors more powerful than the Intel Atom range. Once that happens, these compute sticks could start replacing the laptop, so far the epitome of wireless computing. Look at it this way. A laptop weighs at least 1.5 kg, but a compute stick is about 100 gm and you will need a wireless keyboard that weighs another 200 gm. You will be able to use this rig as a computer as long as you have a flat panel in your hotel room, or the conference room of your office’s branch where you are travelling to. In the worst-case scenario, you might need to borrow a monitor with some smooth talking. But don’t buy the compute stick till then.
However, portable computing is slowly going to become more prominent. We already use a lot of it without knowing.
For instance, the Google Chromecast or the Teewe 2 Android streaming device or, for that matter, any Android box is a small computer that is attached to a television. And we have to agree that with one of these things yoked to it, a television sure becomes more intelligent. It is another thing that televisions are internalising computing power. Until that becomes more affordable, portable computers that plug on through the HDMI have more than a chance.
With its latest update last week, the Apple TV has brought in the voice control element to the large-screen computing. Yes, the fix for the biggest pain point in taking computing to not traditional forms is that input and hence productivity is hit. But all the operating systems now seem to be getting a good grip on voice commands, which could well be the way this form of computers thrive in the future. We are still a while away from figuring out if Siri can pip Cortana in this fight, or if Google will prevail, but there is no denying the fact that pocket computing is finally here.