Ever since the Internet burst onto the consumer scene a decade ago, we've been promised that this technology—originally designed to let the United States maintain its lines of communication in the event of a nuclear war—would transform our lives. And sure enough, it has. The Internet is now the place we turn to when we need to communicate with others (email, instant messaging), see what's happening in the world (cnn.com), go shopping (amazon.com, iTunes), be entertained (YouTube), and even find a mate (match.com). Yep, the Internet has it all. And despite recent surveys suggesting that most people still fear or purposefully avoid technology—those heathens—for better or worse the Internet and all that it provides are here to stay.
What I find most interesting is that the Internet is decidedly changing the way we access and use technology, and that's true whether you're a technology omnivore, which the Pew Internet and American Life Project defines as a predominantly male consumer who embraces technology immediately, or a technophobe worried that Big Brother is watching everything you're doing online. (Incidentally, Big Brother is watching, so stop browsing that porn site and pay attention.) In other words, the old rules don't apply anymore. And the changes that are only now beginning to become obvious are going to cause major and cataclysmic rifts in the years ahead. Think of this phenomenon as global warming—only this time, Florida won't be under water.
Here's what I mean. Since the dawn of the PC age, back in the late 1970s, the act of personal computing hasn't really changed, despite the fact that I'm now sitting in front of a high-powered Windows Vista-based multimedia PC with a 5.1 sound system and 2GB of RAM, instead of a 1MHz Commodore 64 attached to a black-and-white TV that was built when Richard Nixon was president. That is, I'm still sitting at a desk, looking at a screen, and typing on a keyboard. Sure, the details have changed—the keyboard I'm using is ergonomic, and there's a mouse—but in the broad strokes, not much has changed.
The audience for these devices, however, has grown exponentially. Whereas the parents of the Commodore 64-using Paul Thurrott of 1983 were concerned about the social implications of their son sitting in front of a typewriter-like contraption all day (and not, say, out finding a girlfriend), today the wife of that same Paul—who is now 40 years old and has two kids of his own—rarely questions time spent at the keyboard. After all, I'm part of a global community of 1 billion PC users, according to Microsoft. PC use is a mainstream endeavor, especially in developed countries.
Now for the amazing part. Although it's unlikely that the act of sitting in front of a PC is going to go away any time soon, the reality is that the democratization of the Internet has led to an incredible array of ways in which we can access that Internet and the information it provides. In fact, the success of the Internet can be seen more in its ubiquity on non-PC devices; for example, the number of cell phones worldwide vastly outnumbers PCs. And increasingly, consumers want to access Internet services—be they traditional Internet capabilities such as email and the Web or customer-tailored services such as directions, movie-ticket purchasing, and so on—via non-PC devices. Suddenly, sitting in front a computer isn't just common, it's passé.
For all this to work, of course, you need a reasonably modern cell phone—broadly called a smart phone—and an access plan that provides all-you-can-eat downloading capabilities at a set monthly cost (and not, say, a plan that charges per the minute). After that, all you have to do is decide which technologies you're going to bank on (literally and figuratively).
In recent months, I've become fixated on the notion of anywhere/anytime access to my scheduling information, so I've been experimenting with various online calendars and their ability to synch with various desktop applications and the smart phone I'm currently using (a Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q). I'm also paying for EV-DO access through my wireless carrier, which lets me connect my smart phone to my laptop and use it like a broadband wireless modem anywhere in the United States, or I can simply access various Internet services directly from the phone itself. The variety of quality of these services, put simply, is astounding. Most of them are free. And they are improving almost daily.
Microsoft-oriented guys will want to check out the company's Windows Live Mobile offerings, which bring Hotmail, Instant Messenger (IM), Live.com search, Windows Live Local, blogging, and news services down to various smart phones and portable devices. Google offers Gmail, search, maps, news, and blogging facilities to mobile users. Yahoo! is also in the game with search, local, mail, IM, photo sharing, news, sports, finance, entertainment, and weather services. And these are just the big three: Wireless carriers offer their own phone-centric services, and a growing cadre of new entrepreneurs are busy ensuring that mobile users can access whatever they want, whenever they want.
The ramifications of all this are simple. As we move forward, traditional computing platforms—once dominated by machine type (Commodore 64, Atari ST, Apple Mac, IBM PC) and are today dominated by OS type (Windows, Mac, Linux)—will slowly give way to Internet-based platforms. Sure, there will always be reasons to sit down and use a PC with a real keyboard, but increasingly users will access Internet services from portable devices, TVs, and other non-PC entry points. These new devices will seamlessly provide access to the services that are important to you, whether they're productivity, education, or entertainment related.
The Internet was created, essentially, by stereotypical isolated geeks, and yet it's turned into the ultimate way for people to keep in touch with the people and information that are most important to them. And here we are today, with jocks checking out sports scores on their phones, soccer moms using online calendars to consolidate team schedules, and gamers hammering away on Sony PlayStation Portables (PSPs), connected to others via Wi-Fi connections. After spending most of my 40 years wondering when The Jetsons would become real, that universe is suddenly here. Now, if I could just get that flying car, my life would be complete.