3rd Rebirth of Computing: The End of PCs and Game Consoles
Gaming may lead the way to a new technology era: the 3rd rebirth of computing, when incompatibility between devices, games and platforms will become a distant memory. Instead, the private cloud will funnel resources to smartclients -- more than thin clients but less than PCs. Intel's CloneCloud project could help make this idea a reality.
The gaming market has been broken for a long time, and the Conficker worm is a reminder that the PC concept is also becoming unmanageable. Developers want one platform to develop to; they don't want three consoles, two portable gaming systems, lots of phones and a PC. Users want something vastly less complex and really would like to go back to a time when they only worried about the price and where the on switch was.
Well, Onlive, which was announced last month, may start a wave to fix gaming and showcase the future of computing by applying the power of the private cloud to the problems. While we wait for either Microsoft or Google to buy the company, let's consider the next big move in computing, something I'm starting to call the "3rd Rebirth."
Netbooks and Smartphones: The New Smartclient
The iPhone opened the market's eyes to what could be done with a relatively small device that could single task very well. With Android netbook products rumored to be coming from HP and an Apple netbook picture being circulated, this idea of a small, relatively inexpensive device connected to back-end services is looking more and more like a platform that's largely lacking the second half, at the moment -- but that half is clearly coming. That second half is placing the application layer in the private cloud.
The private cloud, a concept being showcased by companies like VMware, EMC and Cisco, has many of the cost advantages of cloud computing with the added benefit of being contained and, potentially, vastly more reliable and secure.
Google, Apple and Microsoft are in a race that should ignite a major OS war for the next generation of computing. Both Apple and Microsoft have to worry about premature cannibalization of existing markets, while Google does not -- which may overcome the advantages both of the more-established firms otherwise would have.
This will be a real horse race; Google initially may set the pace, but its first PC-like offering isn't expected until 2010. These devices, from smartphones to netbooks, are more than thin clients but less than PCs. For lack of a better term, let's call them "smartclients."
While back-end performance has been viewed as inadequate for the broad, existing needs of the market, this may be about to change. This change could consolidate a number of platforms that currently are competing with each other, starting with gaming.
Gaming: Solving Performance Problems
The first major gaming cycle ended with one gaming company standing, Atari. It got killed (but was later reborn as a game content company) by allowing too many low-quality games to destroy the perceived quality of the system. For a short time, there was only one platform, though, and every developer could focus on it.
A lack of focus on PC gaming created an opportunity for console rebirth last decade, and now we have three that are active from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. Two systems had babies -- Nintendo and Sony have portable gaming systems -- bringing the dedicated platforms to five -- and a new one is coming. There's virtually no easy way to optimize a game for any two of them.
There was the hope that PC gaming would eventually displace consoles -- but instead of driving this, Microsoft created the Xbox, which weakened the PC. Windows Vista, the latest Microsoft operating system for gaming, was largely avoided by gamers. The PC, while a popular gaming platform, never displaced console gaming systems, and the strengths and weaknesses of both platforms remain very different today.
In the face of this, the iPhone emerged and currently appears to be drawing more gaming buzz -- despite Apple's historic dislike for gaming -- than either of the two established personal gaming platforms. That suggests a change is taking place.
This situation creates a number of problems and risks for buyers, sellers and developers of games. Buyers either have to buy several platforms or accept the risk that the game they want to play won't run on the gaming platform they have purchased. When placing their orders, retailers not only have to try to figure out which games and systems will be the most popular, but also which platform will be most popular for multiplatform games. One size clearly does not fit all -- yet that is what both consumers and developers want.
Could the smartclient be the answer?
The Birth of Smartclients
For some time, the prevailing belief has been that PCs would eventually replace TVs, but the market has largely rejected this concept. TVs and set-top boxes are increasingly getting Web capability, and the market is adjusting to the concept that the evolution may go the other way, with appliances taking the place of PCs.
In a way, this is what Google appears to be betting on strategically in its effort to displace Microsoft. Google appears to be planning to replace PCs with devices that are more like smartphones and TVs than PCs.
However, a smartclient -- be it a TV, set-top box or smartphone -- is comparatively limited. To compete, it needs a back end to give it the performance it needs to renew its entertainment hub dominance. Enter the private cloud, the great leveler and opportunity maker.
Adding Gaming and Creating the 3rd Rebirth of Computing
OnLive will be the first big test of whether we can put the kind of performance we expect from a PC or console game -- granted something well short of "Crysis," but well in line with what we would get from "World of Warcraft," most strategy games and many first-person shooters.
This is potentially a game changer; it could force console gaming systems and PC gaming was we know it into obsolescence, while adding capabilities to netbooks and cell phones that those devices would otherwise be unable to get. Effectively, this consolidates the now split gaming space, gives these new smartclients near-full-level PC capability, creates usable appliance-like computers, and gives us the performance we need to move to an appliance-like computing experience. Granted, the part I left out was low-cost wireless broadband, but WiMax is coming, and all of this should form the basis for the 3rd rebirth of computing.
Technology of the Week: Intel's Clone Cloud
As I mentioned above, the current crop of netbooks are too notebook-like to make the difference I'm anticipating. Well, as if on cue, Intel had a major lab event at its Berkeley facility, showcasing a platform that could make the 3rd rebirth of computing real.
The concept is called "CloneCloud" in the overview brochure from the event, and the idea is to mirror the virtual polymorphic image of a low-powered desktop device, like a netbook, in the cloud, and sync the two constantly. You could then dynamically assign graphics and CPU power to the task in the cloud and provide a full-on PC experience when the device is connected -- and a more limited experience when it isn't -- with no change to the user interface.
For certain tasks, you wouldn't even need to have the client PC turned on; the virtual client would continue running. You could even have several running virtual clients that you could dynamically switch between -- say one running "Warcraft," another transcoding a movie, and a third running an intensive virus scan. Because it could make this vision of a new computing platform real and because it allowed me to use the word "polymorphic" in a sentence, CloneCloud is my technology of the week.
Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.