What will computer hardware look like in the next five years? With everything we know today, we can certainly suss some of this out now. It’s always fun to put on a cape and pull out a crystal ball, and having covered PCs for 17.5 years, I’d hope I could do justice to a topic like this one. But in this case, I’m going to cheat just a little bit when I make my prognostications.
On the surface, it’s easy to make one prediction: For the most part, the hardware inside computers five years from now won’t be much different than the hardware inside of them now. In fact, the computer you’re using in five years may be the computer you’re using now. Products like Optane are a big deal, but Intel isn’t putting a huge push behind them in consumer spaces yet. We might finally see 10GigE ethernet and we’ll definitely have faster Wi-Fi in five years as 5G rolls out. It’ll be much more common to own a 5G-enabled laptop, though the technology won’t have the same appeal if you still compute from a desktop. If you bought a new high-end system in 2017 or 2018, you’ll probably still be using it in 2023 if you follow a traditional upgrade curve — apart from the graphics card, which you’ll probably have upgraded.
At first glance, that’s not very exciting. What I’m predicting, in essence, is that computing in 2023 will look like 2018, only in higher resolution and with a bit more eye candy. But the real change that’ll be underway five years from now won’t be fundamentally new approaches to what’s in your computer, but the kinds of devices we call computers in the first place.
For all that we poke fun at smart toasters, smart condoms, and smart locks, the IoT is advancing by leaps and bounds. The number of devices with computers in them is exploding, and while some of these products are hacky nonsense, plenty of them aren’t. From medical devices for the elderly to smart bulbs, plugs, and appliances, the smart home is coming — and soon, we won’t be calling them “smart lights.” It’ll just be “lights.”
If this seems far-fetched, consider: We’ve already seen phones take precisely this journey. The first smartphones debuted years before the iPhone was a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eyes, but they were incredibly expensive, corporate-focused models that nobody needed or wanted if you didn’t absolutely have to be tethered to your email account. Even after the iPhone launched, it took years for these products to evolve into something like their modern iterations with app stores and video streaming capabilities.
Yet today, a smartphone can perform every task a computer can. Gaming, music, and video editing can now all be performed (if not as quickly, or as well) on a smartphone. And along the way, smartphones became so normal, now it’s common to refer to them as “phones,” and “feature phones” (aka dumbphones) as the odd devices out.
From this perspective, the PC, with its removable components and flexible configuration options, is downright quaint. For enthusiasts — and to be clear, we’re very much PC enthusiasts — the flexible options around RAM standards, GPUs, and CPUs create utility, because they allow the end user to create optimized solutions. But when the network of the future is a household of 15-30 devices, from PCs to smartphones to wristwatches and alarm clocks, each with its own microprocessor, memory, and capabilities, the old beige box model does look a bit like a dinosaur.
Now, how well will all this work? That’s another question altogether. But the biggest change in five years isn’t going to be the components in your PC. It’s going to be the components and capabilities of everything else.
Top image: The UNIVAC I at the Computer History Museum. Credit: Arnold Reinhold/Creative Commons
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