The Fragmentation of Computer Usage

Back in the 90’s I worked on Sun Solaris servers. Back then, there was an upstart operating system named Linux. Linux lacked the stability of Solaris and more importantly it ran on commodity Intel hardware. This may not sound like a big deal, until you consider that Sun servers of the day often had multiple inbuilt redundancies. A Sun server was really a cluster of multiple servers where a failure in one board simply meant that another board took over. This redundancy applied to all aspects of the server which largely explained why Sun servers were known to run for years and years without a reboot. If a part failed, you simply opened the server (while it was running), changed the part and closed it back up. Contrast this with the Linux/Intel servers of the day where a simple issue, such as bad RAM, meant your server was down.

At the time, Sun argued that there was no way that a Linux/Intel server could possibly compete against a Sun server. To this day, this argument is true.

However, what Sun did not consider is a radical change in the overall architecture. Today, each Linux/Intel server is still susceptible to failure. The solution was to use multiple Linux/Intel servers in a cluster. Now, if any one server fails, you simply remove it (while the cluster is running) and replace it with a new server.

Today, tablets (such as the iPad) and mobile phones (such as the iPhone and the various Android phones) are far to weak to compete head on with desktops/laptops. And, there are pundits showing computing curves that project the point at which a tablet will be as powerful as a laptop.

Frequently we hear the same question, “Will a tablet be your next PC?” This line of thinking misses the point. These hand held will not overtake the PCs power, they will simply change the social architecture of how we use computers.

Today, a mobile phone consumes a portion of “email time”. Here, I define “email time” as the total time a person spends per day reading/writing emails. 10 years ago, 100% of email time was spent on the PC. Today, a portion of that time is spend on a mobile phone, and for those with tablets a portion of email time is spent on a tablet. Thus, the PCs share of email time has steadily reduced.

With the rise of social media, some applications such as Twitter are being designed for these smaller screen devices. In theses cases, the small screen becomes a key selling point, rather than a performance weakness.

Further computing fragmentation is happening with the rise of online applications. As an example, Google Docs is not a direct threat to Microsoft Office. The inherent weaknesses of online applications dictate that Google Docs will lack the rich feature set offered by Microsoft Office for years and years to come. However, what Google Docs does do is fragment office software usage. At times, sharing is more important than power. In these cases, usage becomes fragmented between high-powered desktop software and relatively weak online software. Again, the issue is not when online software will become as powerful as desktop software, the answer is likely never.

As new technologies arise, the important question is not when the new technology will become more powerful than the existing one, but rather will social and technical architectures change so as to minimize the need for the older technology.


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