Technology vanishes into the Cloud

A new service from Apple promises to transform our digital lives. Meanwhile, games designers show off their invisible controllers. Is technology making itself disappear?

For decades, the PC – or 'personal computer' – has been the hub of our digital lives. Heavy boxes of computer hardware sat in our living rooms, storing data, crunching numbers and running applications like games, media players and office programs.

Now, with the next wave of computer innovation, that's set to change. A new service just unveiled by tech-giants Apple will build on existing services from Google and Amazon to push our digital lives away from personal hardware and onto the intangible network known as 'the cloud.'

So what is this 'cloud' that's poised to make the PC obsolete? It's a hard question to answer. The cloud is everywhere. It has no physical form. It has no set boundaries. The old method of computing was built around individual machines. The cloud is a network that spans the globe.

The recent Apple announcement, for example, was for a service called iCloud. Users will be able to store data like documents, films and music in folders that can be accessed from anywhere, on any Apple device. You could start watching a film on your Mac at home, then switch to an iPhone or iPad on the bus, then catch the final scene on a friend's computer somewhere else entirely.

Cloud services like this work by holding information online, using vast servers around the world to provide memory and processing power. And it's not just files that are moving online.

Increasingly, even quite complex applications can be run on the web, and accessed from any device which can open a browser window. With services like Google Docs, for example, you could carry out word processing tasks from a smartphone, a tablet computer, or even a web-enabled TV.

Software and information are moving online fast. Meanwhile, hardware is disappearing entirely. For example: gamers at this year's E3 convention have just been shown the second generation of games built for Microsoft's Kinect. Traditionally, games are controlled with physical joysticks and pads. Kinect allows players to navigate digital worlds using voice commands, gestures and even eye movements.

A puff of smoke

So what does all this mean? The pattern that's emerging is one where technology begins to disappear. That doesn't mean it will stop existing – far from it – but each advance takes us closer to a world where there are no obvious technological steps between us and what we want to do.

If we want a certain movie, or a particular document, we could summon it with a wave of a hand. Communicating with distant friends might become as simple as saying their name. To visitors from the past, that wouldn't look like technology – it would look like a superpower.

You Decide

  1. Are the swift advances in technology exciting – or a little bit scary?
  2. Virtual and digital worlds are becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives. Is there a danger that we could leave the real world behind entirely? Would that be a bad thing?

Activities

  1. How do you think we will interact with computers in ten years time? Design a device for the future of computing – it could a portable screen or a new interface or something even more advanced.
  2. Computers have had a revolutionary effect on the way we live today. What other technologies in history have had a similar impact? Pick one, and explain why it was so important.

Some People Say...

“I don't want to store my information on invisible networks. If I can't see the machine, I can't trust it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Technology's not disappearing. There's more of it all the time!
That's true. What's happening is that 'hardware' – the physical machinery of technology – is becoming less and less visible.
Why's that?
Hardware stands between technology users and the things they want to do. No one wants to press a lot of buttons in order to achieve their aims. We want to carry out tasks in a way that feels effortless and natural.
And software is moving online?
Yes. Computing used to be about a machine in the living room. Now the machine can be anywhere – all we need is an interface which allows us to reach it.
An interface?
An interface allows us to interact with the digital world.

Word Watch

Applications
'Applications', or 'programs' are processes that work with stored information to produce a desired result. To watch a film on a computer, for example, you need an application to turn the raw data (stored as 1s and 0s) into a picture on your screen.
Intangible
Essentially this describes things that are impossible to touch or grasp. Sometimes it's used as an adjective for things that can't be measured, or even understood.
Processing power
When applications work with data, they're basically doing lots of complicated sums at the same time. 'Processing power' is a measure of how many sums a computer can do, and how fast they are done. The more processing power you have, the more applications you can run at the same time.
Tablet computer
Tablet computers are somewhere between laptops and smartphones. The most famous example is the Apple iPad.
Software and information
Computers have three key ingredients. Memory stores information in 1s and 0s. Software processes that information and allows users to work with it. Hardware is the physical machinery that allows software to run, and which allows users to control software.

Subjects