8 August, 2012 - 14:27 By News Desk

Microsoft v Acer v Apple v Samsung v Intel v Google v Amazon v...

It's getting interesting now, again. Not long ago, there was the bog standard PC in most homes and offices, running Windows, some Macs for those with a more arty streak, and a few IT enthusiasts running Linux.

Then Apple saw the light and suddenly became cool and trendy and raced up in market share. Then Samsung realised they could do it too, then Google wanted a slice, and Amazon.

Plus a whole flock of also-rans of course. Then a new phase started. Intel realised they could probably make kit as well as chips too, a few new tiny computers like the Raspberry Pi were launched, and now Microsoft are trying to get into devices instead of just peripherals.

Acer has suggested it might be bad for the industry if the default OS supplier tries to compete head on with the hardware manufacturers. Maybe, but I think the big picture suggests otherwise. The game is changing.

Is it the end of an era, the start of a new one, or is it just back to the 80s? Then we had the Apple 2 v BBC Micro v Sinclair Spectrum v Dragon v Atari and later the PC, the Archimedes and the first Macs.

These all had different hardware and different operating systems, all had their own dedicated followers and flavours. These competed for attention but also existed with the backdrop of mini-computers like the VAX that provided office automation to entire offices via dumb terminals such as the VT 220.

Is that so different from today? Not really. The cloud and tablet or net-book are just the modern answer to the VAX and dumb terminal and actually are pretty much exactly as we recommended back then. There is nothing really surprising yet. Yet!

This explosion in the range of offerings may be a pain for data integrity workers who need to preserve stuff across generations of diverse IT, but it does make us all a bit safer.

When everything was a PC with Windows, there was a single huge target for viruses, and we often saw major outages in big companies. With more diversity, it will be harder to bring the whole system down.

People will use one device while their other one is getting fixed. It will be harder to ensure that we keep our data in forms we can still read. Devices will die, software will be 'upgraded' beyond compatibility and even cloud storage systems will come and go as standards change and companies die or as free services mutate into paid ones. It will be harder and harder to even remember what you have and where it is, let alone what formats it is in or if you need to migrate it.

On the whole, it is a good thing. Competition also drives innovation and we benefit from better machines and services. Companies will want to enter markets quickly when they get good ideas, and that creates opportunities for providers of base technology, such as ARM, and operating systems, and novel networks.

I do wonder whether ARM will get back into the machine market again. Their 1980s Archimedes was a nice machine, but never got much market share. I rather hope they do. We need better devices still.

The ipad is thick and heavy, the Microsoft Surface tablet and Macbook Air are still too fat, rigid and heavy as are all the competitors. Pick up a DVD case. That's how heavy the Galaxy 10 needs to be, with a range scaled for size from lapel badge right up to Hello Magazine size. Maybe even a whole coffee table.

It can be done, and it will be; the only questions are when, how much and who by. I think ARM is the sort of company that could make strides in the right direction, but I am sure there are also many startups and wannabes in the pipe too.

And of course there will be the video visor markets to cater to. It is embryonic even in concept, but the future will bring active contact lenses or corneal onplants as well as a wide range of visors.

Google's current hype will look very primitive very soon. Again, there are lots of places for basic technology development as well as hardware assembly, all the way from zero-OS systems to complex standalone AI devices.

It is all very nice making gorgeous tablets with sophisticated operating systems. However, I do think there should be a lot more exploration in then opposite direction. Java was originally quite a small OS, but could we make an even lighter one?

Some tasks done by the OS could be done equally well using basic physics. For example, multitasking is easy if you have 1000 cores and randomly allocate processes to each, it doesn't need an OS. Ditto sensory networking and a lot of cloud and comms stuff.

An ultralight OS running on an extremely simple device could be cheap yet effective. Maybe that isn't the right way to go, but maybe it is. We should at least check that tree instead of always barking up the other ones. Its branches have lots of fruit on, and maybe they are tasty.

With a colleague, I initiated an ultra-simple computing project seven or eight years ago. Other things forced it onto the back burner, where it remained ever since, but it is an area well worth exploring, we found some good ideas. I might resurrect it if I get bored.

Even with all these global companies already in the space, there is still lots of room for more. I think we will see the diversity explosion continue for a good while.

Media companies, jewellery and toy manufacturers, sensor makers, and general household goods manufacturers will all get into the game in due course, doubtless along with some others I haven't yet thought of. Great for everyone, and great for business opportunity in the East of England.



Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features