Opinion

The Computer is Dead, Long Live The Computer, Pt I: So Long Netbooks, We Hardly Knew Ye

Shannon Teoh

Shannon Teoh is a football fan reborn and rejuvenated after a stint in London completing postgraduate studies in media. Having focused on political communication and now back on staff at The Malaysian Insider, he can't decide if he should comment on politics and media or football. So he's decided to let you jeer him on both counts at:shannon@ themalaysianinsider.com

JUNE  6 — It seems somewhat contrarian to me that a significant number of tech geeks have been busier giggling at the iPad’s name than pondering its ramifications.

Let me fly my colours right from the start: The ramifications amount to revolution.

The same tech-geeks who wax lyrical over things like Bladerunner, Star Trek, The Matrix and countless other sci-fi opuses (opi?) are now iPad, heck, Apple-sceptics even. It’s a victory of style over substance they say. It’s just a toy.

“It’s an overpriced eBook reader,” say some who are still stuck in the current paradigm of tablet computing.

“Who needs an oversized iPhone?” say those even more misguided. If anything, it’s an oversized iPod Touch since it as yet, not a telecommunications device.

This blatant lack of imagination, or rather, refusal to use the same imagination afforded when interpreting sci-fi, may be purely down to the tendency of elitists to shun the mainstream tide. The same way one might geek over “uber-cool” concepts in movies, books and comics, one would also wave away anything that sells over half a million units in the presale.

It is probably the reason why IT specialists are losing out to entrepreneurs in their own game. Nobody really credits Apple or Windows head honchos Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as top programmers. Being tech-savvy in today’s hyper-mediatised world, is simply the same as being business-savvy.

Zan Azlee, my fellow columnist for The Malaysian Insider, recently postulated that if news organisations can come up with some awesome and creative content, then definitely, journalism would be revolutionised.

While this is not in itself wrong, it fails to address the entire paradigm of, in this case, journalism (but it is a point that can be extended to all of media and nearly by definition, communications technology).

The final product — the “awesome and creative content” — is merely the output of the journalistic practice. Zan thinks about how the reader/viewer/audience will consume the fruits of journalism. The lingo for this sort of user behaviour is “lean-back.”

And so, if to lean-back is to consume, then lean-forward is to produce. It is all those things associated to the keyboard-equipped computer (desktops, laptops and netbooks) — the most common of which, is word-processing.

It is strange that Zan talks of the “New Media audience” but yet fails to acknowledge that this very same audience are now part of this Web 2.0 age of interactivity (for example, once you finish this article, you will be able to post some comments, moving quickly from lean-back to lean-forward).

As far as journalism is concerned, the utilisation of the lean-forward aspects of the iPad and tablets that will follow offer mind-boggling possibilities. Today, news sites race to be the first to produce a newsflash which is then updated progressively as the news is broken, analysed and contextualised. However, these are done at intervals rather than “live.”

Now, think of the iPad as the always-on computer it is being marketed as - enough battery life to last the entire working day and no load-up time. The journalist listens to a speech, picks out quotes, sends it back to his desk.

Wrong. He sends it straight to the website. Well, almost. With a few seconds delay, his editor can glance over the incoming text just to make sure it makes sense and let it through while he also busies himself adding context. Instead of the desk being another stop in the editorial process, it now just oversees the uninterrupted stream.

The reader — let’s give him an iPad too — is logged on to the page, and reads these words appearing before his eyes as if in realtime and all the while, in a sidebar, the editor is adding background, developing the full story as it happens.

News journalism can now move from “what happened” to “what is happening” even when one is not in front of a television. And what is true for journalism, is also true of all media computing.

The iPad first seemed like the coolest way to browse the Web, read books and email, watch movies, listen to music and play games. It may very well be. But more than that, it has changed the paradigm of producing data. And in this way, far from the fear of journalists that technology and citizen journalism will render them obsolete, the journalists of the tablet-age will be specialists with never-before-seen ability to think on the fly.

He will no longer have the luxury of recording or taking down notes. He will know instinctively what is important and input that straight to the web. If need be, he can erase, delete, and edit but he will still have to catch up with proceedings.

But tablets will change the game even in terms of what it does in the physical world. Desktops were deskbound and laptops were not really mobile, they were nomadic or at the very best, multiplicitous. It allowed you to use a computer in many different locations but not ALL locations at ANY time. You still had to sit down and then fight for a wi-fi or 3G connection.

And so finally, at the end of the article, we return to the headline. The truth is netbooks were an inelegant and stopgap measure to try to bridge the gap between nomadic and mobile. It failed of course, because this is all it was: a device that made it easier to carry a computer around but not to use it.

I say “was” pointedly. Because lighter and smaller laptops are not the future. The iPad, despite being the first of its kind, costs about as much as a high-end netbook, most of this due to shrinking its components into one processing board and installing a touchscreen.

In time, economies of scale will catch up and already tablets are doing more with less processing power than netbooks. And ultimately, all the things that computers do today, will not need to be done by computers of the future.

If computers changed the way we lived by squeezing the world into a little box, then tablets will change it again by simply becoming an interface. Both data and software — or Apps, as it seems will become the new paradigm — will be up in the cloud.

The only thing stopping this, is the same thing that stopped tablets from overrunning personal computers 20 years ago. Technology.

The tablet is not a new idea. It is the best idea of the late 1980s. We just didn’t have the technology to make the best use of it yet. Today, Internet speeds have changed that and as it gets faster, the personal computer will shrink in tandem.

More actual computing (the word really means to calculate and process) will be done in the cloud. The post-PC world will only require us to have an interface. Input, output, input, output and all the rest is being done elsewhere.

If there have been times when you were getting ready to leave home and wondered if your smartphone will do, or whether you need to bring your laptop as well, those days are numbered. We have finally arrived at the doorstep of all those sci-fi dreams of transponders and hand-held devices that jack us into the entire world, anywhere, anytime.

And what will this do to the way we live and more importantly, think. Well, that’s another story... which we will explore in the next instalment.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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