More than a year ago, I wrote a column in this space called "Why the iPhone will change the (PC) world." In that piece, I described how the user interface of future operating systems — the next-generation Windows, OS X and Linux UIs — will have iPhone-like elements such as multitouch, gestures, physics, 3-D and minimal icons.
When my initial column appeared, the Apple iPhone was the only major product on the horizon — it hadn't even been released yet — that contained all those basic elements. Even eight months after its release, it remains the only product with those elements.
You can argue all day long about whether the iPhone is the best phone (it isn't), or if Apple designers invented these five UI elements (they didn't). But over the next decade it will become increasingly clear, as next-generation cell phone, laptop and desktop systems emerge, that the iPhone was breathtakingly ahead of its time.
That column was about the user interface of the future (if you haven't seen the demos, check this out). But what about hardware? Here, too, the iPhone points toward the inevitable future of both mobile and desktop systems. That's what this column is about.
Desktop PCs of the Future
Right now, your garden variety desktop PC features a big CPU with a monitor or two oriented vertically and facing the user. Cables or Bluetooth link keyboard and mouse.
Within seven years, PCs will change completely.
Next-generation user interfaces will have no use for a mouse. All that dragging and dropping, pointing and clicking, resizing and moving will be done directly with fingers touching the screen. Mice will go the way of the floppy disk, never to be seen again.
Real keyboards will be optional, and on-screen keyboards, enhanced by haptic feedback, will replace the real thing.
PC monitors will continue to grow until the average screen is well over 50 inches.
And, finally, the boxy CPU will disappear and PC boards and other electronics will vanish into the back of the monitor, much like the Apple iMac or the Dell XPS One. This approach reduces cabling, plus there will be plenty of real estate for components behind those big screens.
Because these display-centric PCs will be so large, and every square inch of those screens will need to be reached by the user's hands, future monitors will be like drafting tables used at an angle. The bottom of the screen will be waist high, and the tops chin-high, or something like that. They'll be capable of swiveling to vertical so they can be used for presentations or as a TV, or horizontal, for use as a physical desk. You'll be able to place books or reports side-by-side with on-screen documents.
Laptop PCs of the Future
As is currently the case, most users will gravitate toward laptop computers that most closely approximate the desktop experience. That experience will be all about hands touching a massive next-generation UI where more screen real estate will be more important than a physical keyboard. That's why laptops will likely retain the clamshell design, but the bottom half will be all screen, just like the top half.
Many laptops will be able to function in multiple modes, opened flat for maximum screen size (the two screens working as one), clamshell with a virtual keyboard on the bottom, or the top twisted around like some of today's convertible tablets.
Both desktops and laptops will go the way of the iPod Touch — everything disappears into the screen, which you navigate with your fingers.
The future direction of technology is always hard (and perilous) to predict. However, I think all these major hardware changes are nearly certain. And I don't see all this coming together in isolation, either, but as the result of an inexorable chain of causality.
If you accept the inevitability of the next-generation interface — the UI with advanced versions of iPhone's multitouch, gestures, physics, 3-D and diminished role of symbolic representation (icons) — then all the rest follows. Screens will grow. Big screens you touch will have to be pivoted at an angle because constant vertical or horizontal use will be awkward and uncomfortable. Mice will vanish because you'll touch on-screen objects directly. The screen will provide an incentive to get rid of the keyboard.
And as people get used to this paradigm for their desktop-equivalent computers, laptops with similar designs will follow. The easiest way to maximize both screen size and portability will be with a two-screen clamshell configuration.
Of course, there are many hurdles yet to overcome. The OS vendors will have to put a lot of research into making products affordable. The entire industry will need to get behind next-gen systems with applications, utilities, hardware and peripherals.
But that's the direction we're going. And iPhone got there first.