Tech Experts See Bright Future in the Cloud

By David Needle

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The PC of the future will be very different from the computers that have come to dominate so many desktops in the home and office today, according to a broad survey of 895 tech experts by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center.

By 2020 the majority of these experts expect most people to access their applications online, the basic cloud computing model championed today by Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Salesforce (NYSE: CRM) and others, versus the traditional model of running software stored on the PC. Likewise, information access and sharing will be online versus relying on what's stored on the local device.

However, many of those surveyed also agreed that the PC still has a future working in tandem with cloud-based systems.

In one scenario, the PC could prove broadly useful as the primary interface to local networks or private clouds. Some also noted that PCs, even if they're primarily used as Web terminals, will continue to dominate because smartphones and other portable devices have a limited user interface and aren't ideal for the most common productivity applications including word processing and working with spreadsheets.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs voiced a different view at a recent conference where he predicted the ascendancy of mobile devices like his company's iPad in an increasingly mobile world. "PCs are going to be like trucks...They are still going to be around," Jobs said at the AllThingsD conference, adding that only "one out of X people will need them."

One measure of where the experts in the Pew study see the cloud's impact was in response to the following statements.

Some 71 percent agreed with the statement:

"By 2020, most people won't do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Instead, they will work in Internet-based applications such as Google Docs and in applications run from smartphones. Aspiring application developers will develop for smartphone vendors and companies that provide Internet-based applications because most innovative work will be done in that domain, instead of designing applications that run on a PC operating system."

On the flip side, only 27 percent agreed with this statement:

"By 2020, most people will still do their work with software running on a general-purpose PC. Internet-based applications like Google Docs and applications run from smartphones will have some functionality, but the most innovative and important applications will run on (and spring from) a PC operating system. Aspiring application designers will write mostly for PCs."

But some survey respondents said cloud-computing adoption may also continue to be hampered by security concerns and users' willingness to share personal information on social networks and other cloud-based systems.

Beyond individual or consumer concern, some of those surveyed said large businesses are far less likely to put most of their work "in the cloud" anytime soon because of control and security issues. Others predicted low-income people in least-developed areas of the world are most likely to use the cloud because it augments the mobile phone that is likely their only computer device.

Survey results represented the individual opinions of representatives from such companies and institutions as Google, Microsoft. Cisco Systems, Yahoo, Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, New York Times, O'Reilly Media, Wired magazine, The Economist magazine, Institute for the Future, British Telecom, MITRE and Craigslist.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.