The computer industry moves in waves. We're at the tail end of one of those waves — the mobile revolution.
What's next? Robots.
But not the way you think.
The robot revolution won't be characterized by white plastic desk lamps following you around asking questions in a creepy little-girl voice, like I saw at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. That might be a part of it, but a small part.
Rather, it'll be characterized by dozens of devices working on your behalf, invisibly, all the time, to make your life more convenient.
Some people in the industry use the term "artificial intelligence" or "digital assistants." Others talk about "smart" devices. But none of these terms capture how widespread and groundbreaking this revolution will be. This isn't just about a coffee maker that knows to turn itself on when your alarm goes off, or a thermostat that adjusts to your presence.
(And "Internet of Things"— please stop already.)
This is about every piece of technology in your life working together to serve you. Robots everywhere, all the time.
Not like the Roomba. More like the movie "Her."
Where we've been
Every 10 or 15 years, a convergence of favorable economics and technical advances kicks off a revolution in computing. Mainstream culture changes dramatically. New habits are formed. Multibillion-dollar companies are created. Companies and entire industries are disrupted and die.
I've lived through three of these revolutions.
- The PC revolution. This kicked off in the 1980s with the early Apple computers and the quick-following IBM PC, followed by the PC clones. Microsoft and Intel were the biggest winners. IBM was most prominent among the big losers, but there were many others — basically, any company that thought computing would remain exclusively in the hands of a few huge computers stored in a data center somewhere. By the end, Microsoft's audacious dream of "a computer on every desk and in every home" was real.
- The internet revolution. This kicked off in the mid 1990s with the standardization of various internet protocols, followed by the browser war and the dot-com boom and bust. Amazon and Google were the biggest winners. Industries that relied on physical media and a distribution monopoly, like recorded music and print media, were the biggest losers. By the end, everybody was online and the idea of a business not having a website was absurd.
- The mobile revolution. This kicked off in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone. Apple and Samsung were the biggest winners. Microsoft was among the big losers, as its 20-year monopoly on personal computing finally broke.
A couple of important points.
First, when a revolution ends, that doesn't mean the revolutionary technology goes away.
Everybody still has a PC. Everybody still uses the internet.
It simply means that the technology is so common and widespread that it's no longer revolutionary. It's taken for granted.
So: The mobile revolution is over.
More than a billion smartphones ship every year. Apple will probably sell fewer iPhones this year than last year for the first time since the product came out. Huge new businesses have already been built on the idea that everybody will have an internet-connected computer in their pocket at all times — Uber wouldn't make sense without a smartphone, and Facebook could easily have become a historical curiosity like MySpace if it hadn't jumped into mobile so adeptly.
This doesn't mean that smartphones are going away, or that Apple is doomed, or any of that nonsense. But the smartphone is normal now. Even boring. It's not revolutionary.
The second thing to note is that each revolution decentralized power and distributed it to the individual.
The PC brought computing power out of the bowels of the company and onto each desk and into each home. The internet took reams of information that had been locked up in libraries, private databases, and proprietary formats (like compact discs) and made it available to anybody with a computer and a phone line.
The smartphone took those two things and put them in our pockets and purses.
Tomorrow and how we get there
This year's CES seemed like an "in-betweener." Everybody was looking for the next big thing. Nothing really exciting dominated the show.
There were smart cars, smart homes, drones, virtual reality, wearable devices to track athletic performance, smart beds, smart luggage (really), and, yeah, weird little robots with anime faces and little-girl voices.
But if you look at all these things in common, plus what the big tech companies are investing in right now, a picture starts to emerge.
- Sensors and other components are dirt cheap. Thanks to the mobile revolution creating massive scale for the components that go into phones and tablets, sensors of every imaginable kind — GPS, motion trackers, cameras, microphones — are unimaginably cheap. So are the parts for sending bits of information over various wireless connections — Bluetooth LTE, Wi-Fi, LTE, whatever. These components will continue to get cheaper. This paves the way for previously inanimate objects to collect every kind of imaginable data and send simple signals to one another.
- Every big tech company is obsessed with AI. Every single one of the big tech companies is working on virtual assistants and other artificial intelligence. Microsoft has Cortana and a bunch of interesting behind-the-scenes projects for businesses. Google has Google Now, Apple has Siri, Amazon has Echo, even Facebook is getting into the game with its Facebook M digital assistant. IBM and other big enterprise companies are also making huge investments here, as are dozens of venture-backed startups.
- Society is ready. This is the most important point. Think about how busy we are compared with ten or twenty years ago. People work longer hours, or stitch together multiple part-time jobs to make a living. Parenting has become an insane procession of activities and playdates. The "on-demand" economy has gone from being a silly thing only business blogs write about to a mainstream part of life in big cities, and increasingly across the country — calling an Uber isn't just for Manhattan or San Francisco any more. This is the classic situation ahead of a computing revolution — everybody needs something, but they don't know they need it yet.
So imagine this. In 10 years, you pay a couple-hundred bucks for a smart personal assistant, which you install on your phone as an app. It collects a bunch of information about your actions, activities, contacts, and more, and starts learning what you want. Then it communicates with dozens of other devices and services to make your life more convenient.
Computing moves out of your pocket and into the entire environment that surrounds you.
Your alarm is set automatically. You don't need to make a to-do list — it's already made. Mundane phone calls like the cable guy and the drugstore are done automatically for you. You don't summon an Uber — a car shows up exactly when you need it, and the driver already knows the chain of stops to make. (Eventually, there won't be a driver at all.)
If you're hungry and in a hurry, you don't call for food — your assistant asks what you feel like for dinner or figures out you're meeting somebody and orders delivery or makes restaurant reservations. The music you like follows you not just from room to room, but from building to building. Your personal drone hovers over your shoulder, recording audio and video from any interaction you need it to (unless antidrone technology is jamming it).
At first, only the wealthy and connected have this more automated lifestyle. "Have your assistant call my assistant." But over time, it trickles down to more people, and soon you can't remember what life was like without one. Did we really have to make lists to remember to do all this stuff ourselves?
This sounds like science fiction, and there's still a ton of work ahead to get there. Nobody's invented the common way for all these devices to speak to each other, much less the AI that can control them and stitch them together. So this revolution is still years away. But not that far.
If you try to draw a comparison with the mobile revolution, we're still a few years from the iPhone. We're not even in the BlackBerry days yet. We're in the Palm Pilot and flip-phone days. The basic necessary technology is there, but nobody's stitched it together yet.
But when they do — once again — trillion-dollar companies and industries will rise and fall, habits will change, and everybody will be blown away for a few years. Then, we'll all take it for granted.