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The Disappearing Computer by Bill Gates

Reprinted from "The World in 2003," a publication of The Economist Group

Will we be surrounded by computers by 2010? Yes, but we wont know it, says Bill Gates, Microsofts chairman and chief software architect

A few years from now, the average home entertainment system might not look much different than it does today. But it will probably have an Internet connection that enables it to download and play digital music and video, display album artwork and song titles on the television, and even interrupt your listening if an important message arrives. It will have a central processor, disk storage, graphics hardware and some kind of intuitive user interface. Add a wireless mouse and keyboard, and this home entertainment system will start looking a lot like a personal computer. Will people buy and use these systems in large numbers? Absolutely. Will they think of them as computers? Probably not.

According to Gartner Dataquest, an American research firm, the world computer industry shipped its one billionth PC in 2002, and another billion more are expected to be built in the next six years. Almost all of the first billion were traditional desktop and laptop PCs, but the second billion will be very different. They will be optimised for the things that people actually want to do with them--we will have tablet-sized PCs for taking notes at meetings or reading e-mail on the couch, entertainment PCs that play music and movies on the living-room television, and pocket-sized PCs that keep people connected and informed wherever they are.

Add to this the exploding number of embedded computers--the kind found in mobile phones, gas pumps and retail point-of-sale systems--which are fast approaching the power and complexity of desktop PCs. On one estimate, people in the United States already interact with about 150 embedded systems every day, whether they know it or not. These systems--which use up to 90 percent of the microprocessors produced today--will inevitably take on more PC-like characteristics, and will be able to communicate seamlessly with their traditional PC counterparts. They will also become amazingly ubiquitous. In 2001, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association, the world microchip industry produced around 60m transistors for every man, woman and child on earth. That number will rise to one billion by 2010.

At the same time, the general-purpose PC as we know it today will continue to play an important--and increasingly central--role in most peoples lives, but it will be at the centre of a wide range of intelligent devices that most people wouldnt think of as "computers" today.

This scenario is in sharp contrast to the computers of just a few years ago--back in the pre-Internet age--which were still mostly passive appliances that sat in the corner of the den or living room. Back then, people used their PCs for little more than writing letters and documents, playing games or managing their family finances. As a communications tool they were largely ineffective, except for a few primitive e-mail networks and bulletin-board systems. The PC had not yet become essential to most peoples lives--not in the sense that the television, telephone or automobile now are.

But today we are in the early years of a truly digital decade, in which the intelligence of the PC is finding its way into all kinds of devices, transforming them from passive appliances into far more significant and indispensable tools for everyday life. Many of the core technologies of computing-processing power, storage capacity, graphics capabilities and network connectivity--are all continuing to advance at a pace that matches or even exceeds Moores Law (which famously, and correctly, predicted that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every two years).

Computers are becoming smaller, more powerful, less power-hungry and far less expensive, making it easier to build computing power and connectivity into everyday devices. And user interfaces--including speech and handwriting recognition--are growing more efficient and easier to use.

Then it gets interesting

As people find more ways to incorporate these inexpensive, flexible and infinitely customisable devices into their lives, the computers themselves will gradually "disappear" into the fabric of our lives. We are still a long way from a world full of disembodied intelligent machines, but the computing experience of the coming decade will be so seamless and intuitive that--increasingly--we will barely notice it. At the same time, computing will become widespread enough that we will take it for granted--just as most people in the developed world today trust the telephone service.

The pervasiveness and near--invisibility of computing will be helped along by new technologies such as cheap, flexible displays, fingernail-sized MEMs (microelectromechanical systems) chips capable of storing terabytes of data, or inductively powered computers that rely on heat and motion from their environment to run without batteries.

The economics of computing will also bring change. Decreasing costs will make it easy for electronics manufacturers to include PC-like intelligence and connectivity in even the most mundane devices. Eventually, computing power itself could become almost too cheap to meter.

All this will lead to a fundamental change in the way we perceive computers. Using one will become like using electricity when you turn on a light. Computers, like electricity, will play a role in almost everything you do, but computing itself will no longer be a discrete experience. We will be focused on what we can do with computers, not on the devices themselves. They will be all around us, essential to almost every part of our lives, but they will effectively have "disappeared" .

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