23 July 2009

The Future of Computing

Stop for a moment to think about how you use your computer. Are you a producer or a consumer? or like so many of us these days, do you fall into both categories.

At the moment a lot of companies are talking about Cloud computing. Google are already there with their online Google documents service and Microsoft are soon to be following with their Windows Live service. What does it all mean for the future of computing? Well now is a good time to have a look at what I like to refer to as the 'Media Lifecycle', a concept which will be familiar to any graduate computing student. In my mind the media lifecycle consists of four parts.

The first part is about the creation of media and has always been about you doing whatever it is you do. Maybe you're an amateur film-maker or musician or you have a website about your hobbies. This part of the cycle is about content creation. In the past you might have recorded your film using a DV-camera (or even a VHS or betamax camera if you go back that far?). Perhaps you used to get together with a group of friends and record your jamming sessions onto a cheap four-track recorder. Maybe you used to draw sketches which you would then scan into your computer to produce graphics for your websites.

The second part of the media lifecycle is almost as time consuming if not more so. Once you created your masterpieces you probably needed to edit them in some way. If you're a film-maker perhaps you needed to transfer your DV-tape to your laptop or computer and then make use of some video editing software. Likewise with audio, perhaps you had to record your old 4-track tape into your computer and then convert it to mp3 with a specific bitrate or quality setting. In short you were converting your work into something suitable for hosting by a content provider. Even if you were building a website, you would be processing the content you want to use and wrapping it all up in a layer of hypertext (HTML) so that it could be hosted somewhere.

This brings us to the third part of the media lifecycle and its the one currently undergoing a revolution. The third part is about hosting your content. In the past it was the service providers who were responsible for the entire second part of the lifecycle. It is the hosting companies who impose limitations on our creativity as we are forced to comply with their restrictions. Stock photography websites have always insisted that our photos fit into their specific filetype, filesize and image quality requirements. Youtube has limits on the length of video clips you can upload and the social photographers website Flickr currently imposes a 100MB limit for your total picture uploads per month. Yet we have been happy to accept these limitations because we might just get some small reward for our efforts, be it recognition or some miniscule financial gain.

The final part of the lifecycle is the end user, which lets face it is every single one of us who has access to the internet and it's a number which keeps going up. So what exactly is going on with the media lifecycle and why is it important?

First of all lets have a look at what is happening in part 1 of the media lifecycle. We are now seeing devices which bypass the second part completely. Older DV cameras are being replaced by devices like the Flip ultra which records in a format that can be directly uploaded to Youtube. You just plug in via the USB interface and the video footage can be quickly uploaded without any time-consuming editing. I expect a lot more of these service-friendly devices to emerge, especially in the audio market. Amateur musicians may no longer have mp3.com to showcase their talent but other providers such as slicethepie.com have taken over. You can even submit albums to Apples iTunes store via Tunecore for a small annual sum (useful if you already have a small fan-base).

In the next few years I would expect this sort of functionality to be built into a lot more creative devices (musical instruments, multitrack recorders, cameras etc). I also suspect we will see wi-fi added to a lot of these and the addition of a settings page for your preferred service to upload to (and the necessary username and password fields). Your next stock photo submission may be submitted while you sleep after using a menu option to tag the pictures you want to upload.

I also expect to see something similar for graphic artists. Perhaps some sort of touch sensitive tablet-PC built using one of the various linux distributions, possibly using the Gimp graphics editor. I suspect this will be a revolutionary device for graphic artists which will allow them to draw anywhere and then upload to their preferred clip-art library when they stumble into a wi-fi hotspot. Who knows, maybe the devices will be part-subsidised by the clip-art libraries they are tied to in the same way that mobile phones are discounted here when they are locked to the various mobile networks.

So now we are in the process of removing much of the second part of the media lifecycle, what will be the end result? Well it all depends on us as media consumers. The logical progression for the hosting companies is to take over the creative process as well. This is where cloud computing comes in. We already have Google documents (do I need to point out blogger?) and now Microsoft is following with Windows Live. In the future we will probably see all sorts of creative products from these net giants. Modern digital workstations like FL Studio are already replacing the traditional home recording studio. Why spend money on outboard effects units when there are so many plug-in VST effects which do the same thing digitally and many of them are free. So I expect there to be a whole new breed of applications software, possibly free to us with hefty license fees paid by large hosting companies. That's good for us is what you're probably thinking right now.

It sounds great on the surface but what happens if the host service is forced out of business? It's always a possibility as the recent financial services sector has shown us all too well. What if your digital business suddenly dies as a result of problems in the hosting company. Well one group of people have noticed these free web services tend to die out and as a result they launched the Tonido project. I advise everyone to become familiar with the concept as otherwise we are destined for a great fall.

In a nutshell, the people at Tonido are saying why bother editing your content and then having it published on a hosting server? Why not host it yourself from your own desktop? Well there's one obvious reason. When my desktop is off, so is remote access to my files. This got me thinking though. Yes companies like Google and Youtube are very rarely offline and there's no way your home computer could service a hundred million content requests simultaneously, but how many of us are working on that scale anyway? I've seen a lot of web-developement systems recently and the majority of them use some sort of micro-server for testing. These act as a local web-server, serving content to just the end user but without any complicated set-up process. With over 9 years of IIS experience now, I can tell you that this is a god-send for students.

So what if we opt to keep control of our content for ourselves? Well it could have some interesting consequences. We might not get the cheap subsidised productivity software (which we don't have much of anyway), but there's still freeware. As for the consistent online storage and web-presence, maybe we will all have an extra storage folder with a micro-server framework. Services like Google could cache this for when we are offline and scale up availability for sudden surges in demand. How would they finance this? Possibly by having targetted advertising on the cached versions. It would be our web-server cache though, showing off our content in a way that we control. If we start working on the standards now, we might even be able to dictate what we as the end users want from the net giants. If not... well there's always blogger.