Technology moves at a fever pace, banishing former heads of industry into dinosaur terrain. Titans like IBM can feel antiquated where they once seemed primed for global domination. Stanley Kubrick was so zeroed in on the company’s potential rule that he named his morally curious 2001: A Space Odyssey artificial intelligence program “HAL”, each letter one alphabetically removed from I-B-M.
Similarly, Microsoft has maintained a steady hold in the industry of personal computing, thanks in large part to the magnanimous reputation of its chief founder, Bill Gates. While it has trailed behind other tech giants in terms of zeitgeist chic (Apple) or industry disrupting (the Facebooks; the Ubers), it has nevertheless endured by taking risks and making moves.
Enter the personal, pocket computer
No disruption has reconfigured personal computing and technology as a whole more than the development of the smartphone. It is, without doubt, probably the single most important development of the 21st century, turning the dream of a hyper-connected world into a reality so quickly (we’re talking a little over a decade) that we are still trying to wrap our brains around it.
The idea was relatively simple in pitch: take the complexities of the computer, minimized each year as computers become more and more streamlined, and accelerate that process by rethinking what a computer could be. The result wasn’t just the accessibility of the computer, but rather the placing of a computer in everyone’s pocket. Cell phones became mini-computers, capable of transforming entire industries for good.
The level to which smartphones have risen up the tech totem pole has largely caused an inverse in software demand, meaning that computers are now trying to be more like cell phones. Streamlined software is the name of the game, with intuitive ease and a minimalist approach touted as some of the crucial signifiers of this brave new world. Microsoft tried their hand at that very approach in 2011 when they launched Windows RT, a more slimmed down version of their Windows 8 operating software. The goal was for thinner and lighter PCs—and, as time would show, tablets—to help Microsoft and partners like HP and Dell better compete against the pesky products put forth by that fruit-labeled tech giant.
None of it worked. Windows RT crashed and burned, failing to hit market highs and, most importantly, failing to get people excited about PCs. But a renewed effort might be coming at exactly the point in which people are looking for alternatives to their unintended devotion to certain tech giants. New Qualcomm chips hint at a future that makes good on Microsoft’s early intuition regarding the simplification of computer software.
Product features like the laptop-tablet hybrid from HP promise more than 20 hours of battery life, addressing the product flaw most despised by phone consumers. On top of that, instead of stripping down the Windows operating system like they did with RT, the company decided instead to focus its attention on strengthening the OS rather than cutting it down to cell phone size. Effectively this means taking all the strengths of a mobile-only software, and imbuing their universal operating system with that, instead of creating a product that attempts to do more with less—not designing something less than.
The PCs currently being designed—from the Asus NovaGo to the HP Envy x2—are being outfitted with the RAM and storage needed for professional-grade personal computers, but their emphasis on the needs and desires of cell phone owners is a bold step forward. The Microsoft Windows’ outfitted laptops need to be charged once a week and wake up immediately when interacted with. If speed and near-constant functionality aren’t signs that the smartphone influence has infiltrated even the most grandfathered in of computer makers, then we don’t know what will.