Sunday, November 4, 2012

The slow decline of PCs and the fast rise of Smartphones/Tablets was predicted in 1993

I've just read some predictions for the future of the PC, written in 1993, by Nathan P. Myhrvold, the former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft.

His memo is amazingly accurate. Note that his term "IHC" (Information Highway Computer) could be roughly equated with today's smartphone or tablet device, connecting to the Internet via WiFi or a cellular network. In his second last paragraph, Myhrvold predicts the winners will be those who "own the software standards on IHCs" which could be roughly equated with today's app stores, such as those on iOS (Apple), Android (Google, Amazon) and Windows 8 (Microsoft).

The only thing you could say he possibly didn't foresee would be the importance of hardware design in the new smartphone and tablet industry. I'd suggest that Apple achieved such a head start on their competition through a combination of both cutting edge hardware design along with their curated app store model for distributing software. Interestingly, Microsoft has only last month entered the hardware game with their new Surface brand tablets for Windows 8 and Windows RT, and also announced a shift to focus on becoming a "Devices and Services" company.

Note: the term "Cairo" used below is the code name for a Microsoft Research project which lasted from 1991 to 1996. It resulted in some features that were eventually rolled into Windows 95, IIS and SQL Server.

The below is an extract from a memo written by Nathan P. Myhrvold, titled "Road Kill on the Information Highway". September 8, 1993. Full Source
Personal Computers
I've saved the best for last.  Our own industry is also doomed, and will be one of the more significant carcasses by the side of the information highway.  The basic tasks that PCs are used for today will continue for a long as it makes sense to predict, so it isn't a question of the category disappearing.  The question is one of who will continue to satisfy these needs and how? 
As a case in point, consider that the fundamental category needs for mainframes and minicomputers also still exists and will continue to do so for a very long time.  Despite this, the companies involved are dying and the entire genre is likely to disappear.  The reason is that a new breed of machine - the PC - came along which out flanked them.  In the early years PCs were not particularly good at what minis and mainframes did, but they were terrific at a whole new set of problems that the traditional computing infrastructure had basically ignored.  
Personal productivity applications drove PCs onto millions of desks and created a very vital industry which grew faster - both in business terms and price/performance - than the mainframe and minicomputer markets.   The power conferred by this growth made PCs the tail which wagged the dog; free to ignore the standards which existed for mainframes and minis and move off on their own.   Over time the exponential growth in computing has finally (after 17 years) given the PC industry the technical ability to beat minis and mainframes in their own domain.   Although the early software platforms for PCs had to be extended to fully realize this potential (DOS to Windows to NT to Cairo), it turned out to be far easier to do this than to make mainframe or minicomputer systems address the new needs and applications.   Even within the heart of minicomputer and mainframe's domain - giant transaction processing applications etc., the old standards will not be used.  
I believe that the same thing will happen again with PCs playing the role of mainframes and minis, and the computing platforms of the information highway taking over the role of the challenger.   
The technical needs of computers on the information highway, or IHCs are quite different than for PCs.  The killer applications for IHCs in the early years will include video on demand, games, video telephony and other distributed computing tasks on the highway.  It is hard to classify this as either higher tech or lower tech than the software for PCs, because the two are quite different.   Most IHCs will certainly need to be cheaper than PCs by an order of magnitude and this will inevitably cause them to be less capable in many ways, but some of their requirements are far more advanced. 
Another way to say this is that the rich environment of software for PCs is largely irrelevant for IHCs.   Windows, NT, System 7 and Cairo do not solve the really important technical problems required for IHC applications, and it is equally likely that the early generations of IHC software won't be great platforms for PC style apps.  This isn't surprising because they are driven by an orthogonal set of requirements. 
The IHC world will almost certainly grow faster than PCs, both in business terms and in price/performance.   The PC industry is already reaching saturation from a business perspective.  Technically speaking, the industry is mired in hardware standards (Intel and Motorola CISC processors)  with growth rates that are flattening out relative to the state of the art - just as the 360/3090 and VAX architectures did.   The Macintosh and Windows computing environments may be able to survive the painful transition to new RISC architectures, but they will lose time and momentum in doing so.    
PCs will remain paramount within their domain for many years (we'll still have a computer on every desk) but IHCs will start to penetrate a larger and larger customer base on the strength of its new and unique applications.   The power of having the worlds information - and people - on line at any time is too compelling to resist.   For a long time people will still have a traditional PC to handle traditional PC tasks - in precisely the same way that they have kept their mainframes and minis for the last 17 years.   One day however people will realize that their little IHCs are more powerful and cheaper than PCs - just as we have finally done with mainframes.   There will be a challenge for the IHC software folks to write the new systems and applications software necessary to obviate PCs, just as we had to work pretty hard to come up with NT, but this battle will clearly go to the companies who own the software standards on IHCs.  The PC world won't have any more say about how this is done than the companies who created MVS or VMS did about our world.  Of course, some of the VMS people were involved, but as discussed above it is very hard for organizations to make the transition. 
This may sound like a rather dire prediction, but I think that for the most part it is inevitable.  The challenge for Microsoft is to be sufficiently involved with the software for the IHC world that we can be a strong player in that market.  If we do this then we will be able to exploit a certain degree of synergy between IHCs and PCs - there are some natural areas where there is benefit in having the two in sync.  The point made above is that those benefits are not sufficiently strong that they alone will give us a position in the new world.   We'll live or die on the strength of the technology and role that we carve out for ourselves in the brave new world of the information highway. 

Many thanks to Reddit user erpettie who originally submitted a link to this memo on /r/technology,which is how I came across it.

Follow @dodgy_coder

Subscribe to posts via RSS 


  1. Actually, Alan Kay (as usual) managed to beat this prediction by a decade or two:

  2. Nice. As I recall Arthur C Clarke invented something like tablets and smart phones many decades ago in one of his novels

  3. now-a-days smart phones are used than the Desktop/PC for Software Application side new techniques are emerging but because of that old technology demand are decreasing.

  4. The opportunity to work on what we called the Information Highway PC enticed me to relocate to Redmond for a short time. The actual research was more of a skunks work project that was led by Gabe Newell who reported to Nathan. A much larger group was working on a project code named Iceberg which consisted of massive video servers expected to provide video on demand.

    I'm sure I gained more out of the relationship than Microsoft did from me but my role ranged from creating a new form of electronic program guide to managing focus groups. What we were able to accomplish was far from today's smartphones and tablets.' At the time, storage was still a premium, LCD screens were not available, and high speed internet over the air was one way.

    Thanks for the memories.
    Bill Pytlovany

    1. Hi Bill,
      thanks for the comment - interesting stuff.
      Personally I remember from the time that the term "information superhighway" was used ad-nauseum by the Australian government in the late 90s to mean something akin to superfast Internet. I think there was even a "National Office for the Information Superhighway" IIRC.

  5. Very welcome, glad to have found your blog. You're so right about the use of Information Highway. This was also the time when Microsoft was planning MSN to compete with AOL. Most of my former co-workers with AOL were suspicious of my new relationship.

    The next big term was "convergence". In fact, my follow-up project was with Gateway on their "Destination" PC/TV. :)
    It was ahead of its time because nobody imagined surfing the net from the living room. It didn't help that it was before LCD screens. That 36' monitor was a killer.