Notes on “The Computer for the 21st Century”

October 3, 2008

Mark Weiser introduces a specific and broad vision of the future of computing. He envisions a world in which there are computers everywhere. These machines will be seamlessly integrated with the world and interconnected through networks. He explicitly mentions three main types of computers: Tabs, which are inch-scale computers; Pads, which are foot-scale computers; and Liveboards, which are yard-scale computers. He also implicitly discusses a fourth type, which can be though of as embedded computers. He predicts that the ubiquity of these four types of machines will lead to a number of privacy issues.  

As the paper describes a vision for the future, the key insight of the paper is the clear communication of that vision. The paper includes a fictional narrative which gives the reader a concrete idea of what is meant. Humurously, the protagonist of this story has three cups of coffee in the space of a morning. Other important insights from the paper include its specific  and testable technology predictions: 60MB portable storage chips, WiFi, overlay displays and a few others. It also surveys some of the work that had already been accomplished at PARC.  

It is difficult to name limitations of this paper. Its only weakness is that it is not a description of real progress. The paper doesn’t describe new work that benefit anyone. It is purely theoretical, rather than a report of pragmatic work. 

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One Response to “Notes on “The Computer for the 21st Century””

  1. Ian Says:

    You caught my attention with this one. A very interesting read – especially for a paper written in the early 1990’s – although I found it to be a bit of a case of using technology for technology’s sake. Putting ‘tabs’ on books seems to be just a case of applying too much technology to a problem. The Pads and Liveboards are nice – it would be even better if we had them everywhere now … although we are getting close. Certainly replacing Windows with multiple Pads and thus larger working surfaces would be a great step forward.

    Getting back to the smallest component, Tabs, I don’t see true usefulness in them. Functions such as passing sessions on to others could just as easily be done using proximity knowledge and some voice reco, while book tabs seem overkill. In some respects, simple tabs were piloted in grocery stores a few years back in the form of LCD price displays. It allowed the store to adjust prices, and move products around quickly and easily. But, the solution did not live for long – maybe because it was not solving any real problems in a cost effective manner… as a consumer, I know I didn’t really care – a plastic price tab on the shelf was just as easy, if not easier to read than the e-tag.

    Overall, however, the ideas in the paper have taken me on a bit of journey of thought and analysis. I think a current (still hot?) emerging tech solution might be to use RFID tags on virtually everything, and from there it leads to some rather interesting devices and potential killer apps … some more stuff to think about!


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