“The Computer for the 21st Century”

I was given this paper to read the other day, and I thought it was fascinating. I didn’t really check the date it was published until I was partially through the paper, and found the whole thing to be still applicable to the modern day.
A few select quotes:

Pads are intended to be “scrap computers” (analogous to scrap paper) that can be grabbed and used anywhere; they have no individualized identity or importance.
Pads, in contrast, use a real desk. Spread many electronic pads around on the desk, just as you spread out papers. Have many tasks in front of you and use the pads as reminders. Go beyond the desk to drawers, shelves, coffee tables. Spread the many parts of the many tasks of the day out in front of you to fit both the task and the reach of your arms and eyes, rather than to fit the limitations of CRT glass-blowing. Someday pads may even be as small and light as actual paper, but meanwhile they can fulfill many more of paper’s functions than can computer screens.

On the death of the user interface:

Prototype tabs, pads and boards are just the beginning of ubiquitous computing. The real power of the concept comes not from any one of these devices; it emerges from the interaction of all of them. The hundreds of processors and displays are not a “user interface” like a mouse and windows, just a pleasant and effective “place” to get things done.

On ubiquitous software:

Today’s operating systems, like DOS and Unix, assume a relatively fixed configuration of hardware and software at their core. This makes sense for both mainframes and personal computers, because hardware or operating system software cannot reasonably be added without shutting down the machine. But in an embodied virtuality, local devices come and go, and depend upon the room and the people in it. New software for new devices may be needed at any time, and you’ll never be able to shut off everything in the room at once.

There’s some really interesting ideas in there. We’ve done one or two – some computer settings are mobile, if you stay within one ecosystem, and we’ve definitely got little screens on the ‘tab’ scale. But still not in the ubiquitous way they discuss – we’re still tethered to specific devices, rather than genericized hardware with software that adapts to the person using it.
With the advent of cloud computing, though, that seems more possible. I spent a couple days this week running software that simply couldn’t run on my laptop. Artificial intelligence of the flavor I’m researching this summer requires a lot of processing power, and GPUs meet that need quite nicely. My laptop does not have a GPU; it definitely doesn’t have 8 Titans. And yet, there I sat, in a classroom, running 8 Titans along at peak capacity, all from the comfort of my laptop.
We’re getting closer to some of the ideals that Weiser wrote about 25 years ago. It’ll be interesting to see where we go from here.
(Oh, and you should absolutely read the rest of the paper– there’s more interesting ideas in there that I didn’t pull out, and a nice narrative-style exploration of some of them at the end.)