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Generative AI will change PCs and smartphones, making one (or both) obsolete

Disclosure: Microsoft is a customer of the author.

Microsoft is rolling out an update to Windows 11 that adds ChatGPT. While it’s mostly a front-end for the Bing search engine right now, it could eventually change the way we interact with our computers. Think of it as another step in a long evolution that started with Microsoft Bob, then Clippy and Cortana, now on track to deliver capabilities that previous efforts never delivered.

Evolving the PC from what it is – effectively a terminal with localized processing – to a much more capable and comprehensive tool will be a major change that we are only just beginning to experience. PCs could evolve into something closer to a smartphone, which could make one or the other obsolete, just as MP3 players largely died when smartphones gained the ability to play music.

From Bob to Cortana

i was on the Microsoft Bob launch; it was pretty sad. Microsoft led the way, promoting Bob as the next user interface after Windows. But the developers were unimpressed, and the effort turned into one of the company’s biggest failures. The problem was threefold. First, the technology was not ready yet. Second, developers weren’t fully on board with command line GUIs. And the target audience for the product (who loved it) was largely ignored.

Bob was popular with much older people who were intimidated by technology; they found it easier to work with Bob than with Windows. But for most PC users, Bob was like going backwards on training wheels. It was inefficient, somewhat painful to use, and failed to live up to its promise.

Then came Clippie, an automated assistant that can help you get things done. It was a good idea, but again, the technology wasn’t ready for it and most users found it annoying. I’ve tried the F1 Clippy alternative, and while I rarely used it as intended, I liked the little guy waving at me from time to time like a low-maintenance companion or digital pet. I still miss it.

Next came Cortana, which should have been a game changer given how the game is Halo had defined what Cortana should be. This led to tempered expectations, because when you played the game your expectations were well beyond what Microsoft could deliver. Even if the company could have closed that gap with generative AI, that never happened.

But generative AI, and ChatGPT in particular, have the potential to actually live up to those previous attempts; I think it will change the nature of computers.

The Generative AI PC

Generative AI is conversational by nature. PCs have traditionally been command driven. If you’re working on a spreadsheet or writing something, you’re not having an argument with the PC. You just tell it what to do. Generative AI can collaborate, it can be a coach, and it can volunteer help (as Clippy tried to do) when it sees you struggling. And once it knows your preferences, it can provide help in ways that won’t annoy you.

Over time, it can learn how you like to work, how you prefer to get help, and even where you need that help most.

As a technology, it lends itself to verbal interaction rather than typing (which will also force us to rethink the office). Desktop PCs are limited by keyboard and mouse input methods (and laptops are also limited by their screens). Head-mounted displays are limited because working with a keyboard and mouse often means seeing at least one of them to ensure hand placement. But if you’re having a conversation with your PC, do you really need a keyboard or mouse? And if you don’t need them, won’t a PC become a smartphone with a head-mounted display?

Do we even need a screen if we communicate with the computer by talking to it? Many people already communicate vocally with computers. This morning I asked Alexa about the weather, got a shipping update, and interacted with it about some programming; none of these tasks required a display.

And ChatGPT is much more capable than Alexa.

Two different roads?

I see the coming evolution taking two possible paths. Maybe you have one device while you’re mobile and another when you’re stationary at home or in the office. The mobile would probably be more like a smartphone, highly portable, always connected and personal. The static device would be more like Cortana’s Halo view (with an interface that’s friendly and engaging), integrated with other technologies at home or work, and able to move with you as you move around.

This won’t happen overnight, but it could happen pretty soon – if the market decides that existing hardware designs are outdated and unviable compared to generative AI computers.

With generative AI, keyboards and mice become increasingly obsolete, displays become more fluid in design, and the PC itself becomes more personal (and even more dependent on the cloud). This suggests to me that PCs and smartphones in the post-generative AI world will be as different as today’s PCs from the punch card writers and readers used by early mainframes.

There’s a good chance that the company that gets this right first will own the market, just as Apple did with the iPod and iPhone. If you think generative AI is now disruptive, wait and see. The real change and disruption are still in our future.

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