Tech industry looks to the future

This is the third part in a series on the future of the tech industry.

From the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s to the dawn of the search engine in the ’90s, the short history of the computer industry has been epic.  But let’s face it; technology has always been about the future.

Many experts say the future of the tech industry could center around one device. As professor of marketing Gene Laczniak suggested in the first part of the Tech Wars series, this device could allow users to do most of what they want from one unified interface.

What type of device this might be and what features it would have, however, are the subject of much debate.

The Mystery Device

The past few years have seen an explosion in new devices for personal computing. Laptops have overtaken desktops as the most-used computer, and the popularity of the smart phone and the tablet means people can have access to the Internet from almost anywhere.

Many have suggested that the smart phone is the device of the future, and at least for the near future, that seems to be true.

But the device people will use decades from now might not even exist yet, said Kevin Barnes, a creativity engineer and resident futurist at Milwaukee’s Creatonomy Marketing Communications.

Barnes said although the purposes of many devices now overlap, the number of computing devices has not decreased.

“In fact, the case can be made that the number of device types has actually increased in the last decade,” Barnes said in an e-mail.

Barnes said two current trends in the industry could present two very different futures: ubiquitous computing and shape-shifting computers.

Computing Found Everywhere

In ubiquitous computing, there would be no single, unifying device; rather, computing could be done through everyday objects.

Barnes suggested a scene in which a person wanting to watch an episode of their favorite TV show would simply say the name of the show aloud, and the nearest wall would begin projecting 3-D video, with digital surround sound throughout the room and holographic statistics and background information about the show floating in midair.

“As information processing power and functionality is gradually integrated into everyday items, it will become possible to do whatever we need to do with whatever item is at hand in a given moment,” Barnes said.

Adaptable Computers

Even if it is contained in one unit, the device of the future could be soft, flexible and shape-changing.

Keyboards that can be rolled up for easy storage are already available, and companies have been experimenting with flexible displays.

“As this technology moves forward and it becomes easier and cheaper to build devices with flexible shapes and characteristics, (these) devices with be designed to change shape in order to best support the functionality a person requires at a specific moment,” Barnes said.

Kate Kaiser, an associate professor of management, said flexible devices could fix some of the practical problems of smart phones.

“As much as (a smart phone) sounds great, there’s a practical issue about the size of your fingers,” Kaiser said.

Cloud Computing

It’s the latest buzz phrase in the tech industry, and it could speed the movement away from traditional desktop and laptop computers. Cloud computing, in which files, photos, music and programs can be stored online rather than on a local hard drive, fits in nicely with other current trends.

Services like Google Docs and Apple’s MobileMe allow users to store files on off-site servers, and then edit them using online applications.

But there are security concerns with storing personal information online.

“While the quest for a unifying device is seductive, there is eternal truth to the adage ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,’” Laczniak said.

As far as which companies could win out in the race to produce the device of the future, Barnes said, like the device itself, the tech giant of the future may not exist yet.

“If you look at the companies that were at the leading edge of the computer revolution when it began, most of them are either completely gone or look dramatically different than they did back then,” Barnes said.