Over time, people have always wanted the *fastest* computer they could get, right?
When the 386 came out, everyone thought it was blazing fast, and needed one.
Suddenly, apps were written that used that power, and the 386 became slow, and the 486 came out, and everyone needed one.
The trend is that we *use* hardware performance as it becomes available, and then want more. Kind of like the "never enough money" argument.
But the assumption that this trend will continue is flawed.
The fact is, your average Joe only needs a computer to do so much. Basically, the computer as an "appliance" is able to fully interact with our senses, which are limited. This means, until we see the smell-o-mouse, we essentially need:
Realize this argument applies to the "Average Joe" - not computer geeks like you and I who will want to run huge simulations and do software development or CAD, and will still need to have a full-powered workstation at home. We are the minority.
Most of these requirements are currently available with todays computers. Many of them are also available, just not at full speed yet (such as full video generation, 'flawless' voice recognition) and will be available with off-the-shelf computing equipment in a matter of years.
Have you noticed that people don't talk as much about processor speed? If you go into your local computer store, they talk these days just as much about RAM, disk, screen size, battery life and other features. It was only a few years ago where processor speed was king, and now it's becoming less vital, and soon it will only be a footnote to the specs that a computer will advertise.
So then what happens?
Things are going to get much smaller, and fast.
It used to be that a laptop was a bulky and slow and weak machine. It couldn't do all the tasks of a home computer. This isn't true anymore, my 2 pound ultra-slim laptop (which I paid $150 for, incidentally), can basically keep up with my state-of-the-art home workstation. You can already see the emergence of more and more powerful small computers. Things like Palm are only the temporary offshoots of a new direction in business. Palm is a subset of a real OS, and a subset of a real computer. Pretty soon you'll be able to get a full computer in the same size as a Palm, and it will cost about the same. Which would you rather have, the personal organizer that has a built-in micro browser, or the personal organizer that you just downloaded the latest netscape/mozilla/opera into with the newest version of flash/java/shockwave? The personal organizer that has a provided address list app, or one that can run any address list app you want, and play Doom?
This whole argument applies to data storage as well.
Everyone wants the biggest hard drive/RAM they can get. We keep coming up with more ways to fill them up (mp3s, video,..), and we need to keep upgrading. Although these days, running out of space on your hard drive is a much rarer occurence. I used to have to juggle things between compressing files and moving them to floppy disk storage.
These days I don't even own any disks. And I only write CDs generally as a backup method for information that is also on my computer.
In less than 10 years you will be able to store full videos on your hard drive just like you can store audio on there today. You'll have a movie playlist with 1000's of movies, just like your mp3 player today.
And a few years later you'll be able to put this on the end of your keychain. Are you really going to need to get a bigger hard drive after that? At some point you'll be able to store more video and audio then you'll ever be able to experience in your continuous lifetime. At that point, you won't need the next drive size, now will you?
I admit there's one big difference between my laptop and my home computer. And that's the keyboard, the 21" monitor and the CD-RW. (Though most laptops have DVD/CD-RW these days..)
Just the peripherals.
Now let's look at the future.
But before doing that, consider the past, consider what has happened with the computer industry.
Initially the money was in mainframes. Personal computers existed as a sort of clunky hobby, but the bucks were flowing in the mainframe industry. And that has everything to do with how useful a PC could be compared to a mainframe. As performance increased, servers started to do lots of things that mainframes could do, and the $$ was in the mainframes market. The real issue is that there is a certain amount of computing power (per dollar) that actually is critically useful. Anything less than that and it'll be too slow, and you'll want more speed. Anything more powerful than that and it'll only be useful on the fringe, in the technical and development markets. Then it was workstations, and they started to reach this quantum of computing and started replacing servers. Then it was PCs. The PC market took off and PCs started to replace workstations. This watermark was best publicized in the movie industry when movies like Titanic were advertised to have been created for less money by using huge PC farms instead of workstation farms. Now we're moving towards laptops, and then subnotebooks will be next, then handhelds. Finish the progression yourself.
So here's my forecast for the future.
You'll have a computing unit. It will be a processor that is xxx MHz, where 'xxx' is "fast enough." It will also have solid state storage that is xxx GB, where 'xxx' is "big enough." And this little guy will be the size of a cell phone or smaller, and cost about the same.
And you'll go home and drop it into a port that hooks it up to a monitor and keyboard. And on the road you'll put it in a shell with a Palm sized touch display that lets you access all of your info, and even listen to music or watch a video besides. And then you might pop it into your camera shell (or your organizer shell might have a lens on it..), and you can take as many pictures as you want, because your storage space can hold 1000's of movies, so you'll never fill it up with stills/home video, and you'll never have to sync with your home machine. You may even have full wireless, and your photos can automatically go online to your web photo album. When you get home from your trip you can drop the unit into your theater system and you can watch movies or see footage from your trip. You could put some form of net-currency encrypted on your unit, so you can use it to purchase things as well. You could put it in your car when you are driving and listen to every song you own. You could have a GPS in your car and it could use a service like mapquest to give you directions. And your sweetie will send you email and you'll use a headset peripheral and telephony software to call her back.
But the important point is that you won't need to get multiple computing units, and you won't need to have a home computer anymore. You'll have one computing unit, and it will go with you like a wallet, because it will replace your credit cards, your cell phone, your fax machine, your DVD player, your stereo, your browser, your organizer, your email, etc..
And then there will be some museum where all these towers and cases sit, and people can go look at them and chuckle just like we laugh at Eniac and the vacuum tube today.