Once upon a time, long long ago, the personal computer transformed the global economy, made heroes of nerds and gave everyday people the processing power once reserved for space scientists. Now, of course, smartphones and tablets are turning PCs into relics. Americans embrace the ease of mobile computing — and soon will wear it, if computers in the form of wristwatches and eyeglasses catch on.
The U.S. economy in particular excels in absorbing these kinds of transitions. The capacity to make the most of innovations is arguably the greatest strength of American business. The nation’s commercial advantages over global competitors — access to capital, flexible labor markets, the rule of law — pay off the most when presented with the opportunity to exploit new inventions.
After years of sluggish growth, America needs a breakout moment. Mobile computing could provide it — at the expense of the once-innovative PC. Research firm IDC reports a 14 percent drop in global shipments of desktops and laptops during the first quarter of 2013. PC sales had been sinking for months, but the scale of the latest drop is startling.
That would be bad news for the U.S. economy, except for what’s taking the PC’s place: Mobile computing is spreading faster than any other consumer technology in history, a recent report from MIT researchers notes. Smartphones outsell PCs. Touch screens outnumber keyboards. People run their lives through their phones. Technological history is being made one app at a time.
What comes next? Google has debuted Google Glass eyewear that overlays digital information on the physical world beyond the lens. Apple and Microsoft are said to be developing “smart watches” with sensors, radios and touch screens that fit on the wrist — an idea older than Dick Tracy now being updated with capabilities the comic strips never imagined.
No one can say with certainty that these gadgets will take off. But Google Chairman Eric Schmidt recently made a safe prediction that today’s push for “wearable computing” products represents just the start of how information technology will go where the body goes.
These are the early days. But remember life before the PC revolution three decades ago — even before the networks of linked desktop terminals that preceded it? Forty or so years ago, this editorial would have been typed on a manual typewriter, the paper copy then marked up with pencils and the final product typeset by someone retyping the whole shebang so it could be printed. And now? It is difficult to imagine businesses that could function today without computers — or any social life worthy of the name, for that matter.
The PC revolution turned into a bonanza for the U.S. economy. For every job lost to computing and Internet efficiencies, an estimated 2.6 jobs were created. Similarly, the mobile revolution stands to change the service sector, health care, politics … the list goes on.
Already, most of us are adapting to a digital world on the go — and thinking about new challenges it presents. The surveillance and tracking capabilities of mobile computing, for instance, pose a challenge to privacy rights. The tech industry and smart lawmakers will need to address those concerns by establishing standards and updating regulations.
Closely related is the global issue of cybersecurity: The U.S. needs to negotiate generally accepted guidelines with its trade partners that allow for secure mobile computing across borders.
America needs to make sure its economy is ready for the PC’s successors. They’re here.