Monday, December 19, 2011

The End of PCs?


You are most likely reading this blog article on a machine that would have been considered inconceivably powerful for most of the scope of human history.  You can easily communicate with people around the world in the blink of an eye.  You can effortlessly solve mathematical problems that would have confounded Euclid and Archimedes.  You can access an information repository greater than the Library of Alexandria.  If you transported this machine back a thousand years or so (and lets pretend it would have had access to the necessary battery life and internet knowledge bases), wars would have been fought to possess it.

You hold in your hands the power of the Gods.

"With great power comes great responsibility." (Spider-man comics)

Spider-man learned this lesson to his cost when his inaction lead to the death of his beloved Uncle.  And Spider-man's powers were insignificant next to the powers of a modern personal computer.  This power is literally in your grasp.  Are you ready to accept the mantle of responsibility?

You probably think I'm stretching a point here.  If you're like most people, you just want to use your computer to read the news, gossip with friends on Facebook, and maybe watch some videos on Youtube.  You're just minding your own business.  You have no intention whatsoever of, say, joining a ring of criminals in Eastern Europe and participating in a scheme to extort money from e-commerce sites.  Except that, unless youve been extraordinarily careful with your super-powers, you probably already have.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

The most common form of cyber-crime involves collecting a group of PCs to form a botnet.  This involves infecting each of these PCs with malware, which quietly turns that PC into a slave of the botnet owner, rather than the PC owner.  If the malware is at all clever at its task (which most of them are), it leaves the PC owner oblivious to the fact that anything has changed.  You still think that you're just minding your own business.  You don't realize that you've started engaging in criminal activity.

If it's any consolation, you're not the only inadvertent criminal out there.  You're in the company of millions of others.  Tens of millions.  Possibly hundreds of millions.  When you're talking about this magnitude of numbers, its hard to suggest a lack of personal ethics or failure of responsibility from any particular individual.  What we have is a systemic problem.  Systemic problems require systemic solutions.

"We have met the enemy and he is us." (Pogo cartoon strip)

It is possible to keep a PC free of malware.  You need to keep up to date with your patches.  Not just your operating system patches, however.  Also your browser patches.  And your Adobe patches.  And Java.  And any of the tens or hundreds of other programs you have installed on your computer.  And you need to make sure that you have a detailed understanding of any peer to peer software you run, in order to ensure that it's configured correctly.  And know how to configure your NAT router or firewall correctly.  And understand how to create good passwords.  And understand how to spot false links in emails.

The list goes on and on.  It can be done.  But its a full time job just to keep up with it.

There is an alternative.  It is to realize that not everybody has what it takes to be Spider-man, and not even to try.  This means something that makes most people cringe.  It means the end of PCs.

As revolutionary as this sounds, it's not actually a new idea.  We've already started using iPads, which are not PCs.  Not in the traditional sense.  They are extraordinarily limited.  Theres only one way to get additional software on them.  They don't have an exposed file system.  You can't connect them to all the cool USB devices that make your PC so flexible.  They are limited.  They are restricted.  They are, in a word, much safer than PCs.

"PCs are going to be like trucks.  They're still going to be around.  They're still going to have value.  But they're going to be used by one out of x people." (Steve Jobs)

Steve Jobs had an interesting vision: most people don't need PCs.  Most people don't need the level of power and flexibility that a full-blown computer provides.  You don't need a PC to browse the internet, check your email, and watch Youtube.  And Apple isn't simply filling this need with iPads.  They're moving in that direction with Macs as well.  In March of 2012, Apple will be implementing sandboxing for all applications sold through the Mac store.  This means that every application must request the specific permissions it will require before it is sold by Apple.  And Apple will have to approve it.  This will just be the online store.  At first.  But if Apple has its way, I suspect that it won't be long before the online store becomes the only way to purchase applications for a Mac.

This is going to slow down innovation.  People won't be able to write and release new and interesting applications nearly as fast as they could in the past.  If this had been the model back in the 80s, personal computers might never have gotten off the ground.  But we're no longer in the 80s.  Maybe it's ok for us to finally slow down a tad.

Of course, this doesn't impact Microsoft in the least.  Not yet.  But it seems that even Microsoft is realizing that unlimited power and flexibility in the operating system is not always such a good thing.  In 2001, feeling a surge of Unix envy, Microsoft released a feature called "raw sockets" into Windows XP.  Raw Sockets are cool.  They're powerful.  You can do all sorts of interesting things with them.  Maybe a little too interesting.  Some hackers leveraged them to perform some sophisticated attacks, some against Microsoft itself.  Raw sockets were quietly removed a few service packs later.

We may not yet be at the end of the PC era.  But maybe we should be.  Because most people simply don't need them.  Most people are unable or unwilling to spend the time and energy to use them safely.  And that's OK.  Not everybody needs to be Spider-man.

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