Take five

4 min read

First came the PC. Then the graphical user interface, the internet and Web 2.0. Now Steve Ballmer predicts a fifth computing revolution.

Expanded processing power, huge amounts of storage, ubiquitous broadband, natural user interface (UI) and screens everywhere. Together, these five ingredients will change almost everything we do, and kickstart a fifth computing revolution.

Today we use computing in more and more places all the time. You can get directions and road conditions while driving, you can figure out which nearby restaurant has the most suitable menu, or you can find a spot to sit down and catch up on your emails.

But it is still a little too complicated. A little too disconnected. Think how hard it is to synchronise all your devices and information — your calendar, contacts, music and documents — to your work and your home PCs, your mobile phone and your portable media device.

During the fifth revolution, this will change. Soon, you will be able to instantly call up any document, photo, or media file you've created or saved, on whatever device is at hand. You won't need to know where your information is stored or what device you're using. You will just log on, click, and instantly get access.

This will be true for all forms of entertainment and information. In fact, during the next revolution, virtually all data, content, and media will be digitised.

Software and services — your calendar, email, and productivity applications needed for work, and the games and entertainment software you use for fun — will be instantly accessible, too. If you need a new capability — a new piece of software — you will just click, download, and access it instantly.

The same thing will be true for communication. With a single click, you will be able to reach people instantly, no matter where you are. Of course, you will also have control over who can reach you, and how. When you are busy, software will know whether to interrupt you, based on what you are doing and who is trying to reach you.

Communications will also move seamlessly among voice, text, and video, and from device to device. Imagine a scenario where, at work, you start an email exchange with a colleague, then switch to voice on your mobile phone as you walk to a meeting. Once you arrive, that conversation merges automatically into the videoconference that is already under way.

To help tie this all together, we will have a single 'digital identity' for all our communications. Today, in order to contact someone, we often have to know their phone numbers for work, home and mobile device, plus multiple email addresses and identities for instant messaging. Tomorrow, all you will need is a name. The software will automatically know who you want to reach and the best way to reach them, based on context.

As devices become more powerful, more connected, and easier to use, they will also become smarter and more helpful.

Software will begin to learn your habits, understand your preferences, and predict your needs. It will know what time of day you prefer to fly and the hotels in which you usually stay. It will know who you are going to meet and what topics you will discuss. When you sit down at your computer to start the day, the information you need will be waiting.

Beyond 'personal empowerment', the next seven years will also bring about profound change in how we think about social interaction.

This process is already under way. Everyone is familiar with social websites such as MySpace and Facebook. Clearly, digital technology is becoming an important part of how we connect with people. Already, it is easy to find a group online that shares your interest in a specific topic. As bandwidth expands and processing power increases, interacting with these people will be more like talking with them in person.

This will be important at work, as virtual meetings become more like meeting people face to face. The truth is that right now everybody hates videoconferencing. It is hard to set up. It is stilted and unnatural. But new ways of facilitating interaction between people in different locations are emerging. In the years ahead, innovations such as 3D holographs will make it feel as if someone on the other side of the world is in the same room with you. In fact, this technology already exists. During the fifth revolution, it will become more affordable and more accessible.

Preserving and sharing memories of our experiences is another aspect of social interaction that will be transformed. As storage and bandwidth expands, we will preserve more of our day-to-day experiences in digital form. Already, we record many events and memories through digital photography and video. But mostly they get filed away, never to be seen again. Soon it will be easy to retrieve the record of any experience — from images of your child's birthday party to the video and audio record, plus slides, of a business meeting that took place years before.

But the fifth revolution will do more than just enrich our lives through personal empowerment and social interaction.

In education, the combination of processing power, storage, broadband networks, natural UI, and ubiquitous screens will play a vital role. It will also help us address large-scale healthcare issues. In countries where access to doctors is limited, for example, a physician's assistant will be able to use a mobile phone linked to a cheap display to consult doctors in a hospital hundreds of miles away. Using video and voice, and by transmitting information about things like blood pressure and temperature, they will be able to provide a clear picture of a patient's condition and history and get world-class treatment information.

As computing continues to become more powerful, more affordable and more connected, it will not only enable those of us who live in places such as Hanover and Seattle to lead better lives, it will also give billions more people around the world a chance to take advantage of incredible new social and economic opportunities so they, too, can have enjoy a better quality of life.

Edited extracts from a speech given by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer at the recent CeBit Fair in Hanover