Crystal Ball: What’s the Future of Mobile?

We are computing in the past. Every chipset and microprocessor we use today is the product of five to 10 years of development and design. For a technology company to be successful, it must be able to not only deliver cutting-edge products, but also tailor those products for a marketplace and consumer demand that doesn’t yet necessarily exist. It’s enough to make you want to break out the crystal ball.

That’s where Brian David Johnson comes in.

Johnson’s job is to look 10 to 15 years into the future and develop a plan to create the technology we’ll want tomorrow. Developing such a vision is a complicated mix of sociology and research into how people interact with computation today, with the goal of anticipating how that will evolve over time. Here, Johnson talks about forecasting future technology trends, the human component of technology design and the new ultrabook form factor.

Can you tell us about your history in the industry?

B.D.J.: My first job ever, at age 10, was at the computer lab at the local university in Virginia. That was back when you had a printer room that had one printer in it, and that printer was in a soundproof box. And you then had an entire room of Wang word processing machines and a room full of mainframe terminals. I was there when they carted in the first personal computer. The joke was that it was called a personal computer because you could lift it by yourself.

So we have come a long way, then.

B.D.J.: Oh, yeah! I always laugh because the computers that I learned to program on –today we carry around more computational power in our pockets.

As a futurist, how do you go about projecting 10 to 15 years in the future?

B.D.J.: It starts with social science. We have, in our lab, ethnographers and anthropologists who go all over the world to study people and give us insight into human behavior — how humans communicate with each other, how humans live, how people interact with their governments, how they buy things, what their cars are like.

You name it, they are looking at it.

That sort of gives us a basis. We have to remember that we are building this stuff for us, for people. Then, from there, I look at the computer science side of things: the people who are doing the hardware development, the software development and the really, really crazy innovative stuff that goes on.

Then we ask, “What is possible with technology?” We look back at those human insights and ask, “How do we make people’s lives better?”

Then I like to look at trends — what I call the math of the future. That is where most people start, with gross domestic product. Most people start with population growth and the projections of where we are going. Although those are important to me, they aren’t as important as the first two steps — social science and computer science — because, again, we have to understand the people we are building for and then we have to understand the technology that we are building.

What kind of effect do you see smaller screens and portable form factors having on the industry going forward?

B.D.J.: Computation power has spread out. It has found its way into our living rooms and pockets, and it’s finding its way into our cars, our walls and our hospitals. For the longest time people asked, “Will the PC kill the TV?” Now you hear them ask, “Will the smartphone kill the laptop?” or “Will the tablet kill the laptop?”

What we have learned is it really isn’t one device that will rule them all; it’s whatever device people have handy. People really like choice. People will watch Inception, a big blockbuster movie, on their big-screen TV at home, but if they happen to be stuck in an airport or on a bus, they will watch it on their smartphone. If you’ve got that type of power on those small screens, it allows computation to fit much more elegantly into people’s lives.

So where do you see the new ultrabook device fitting in?

B.D.J.: You need to touch an ultrabook. It is a rush of innovation when you touch the form factor. Consumers love them, and what consumers begin to see them as is another really viable screen that lives in the device ecosystem, or this constellation of devices that consumers have in their lives. You have a smartphone, a tablet, an ultrabook, a television — all these devices begin to fit quite nicely together. Then it becomes more about the consumer and their choice about the kind of screen they would like to interact with.

How do you see people outside of the tech and gaming industry using ultrabooks in their daily lives?

B.D.J.: People say that small business is the engine of our economy. The ultrabook device as a tool for work and a tool for small- and medium-size businesses begins to make a lot of sense. People need to be mobile — they work at home, at cafes and in their offices. In that way, I think the form factor fits into how people live their lives; it’s not the people changing their lives.

The other side is the maker in us. I think you can look at a smartphone or tablet as a way of connecting, finding your way and being entertained. But I also think there is something very specific around the ultrabook device where people are using it to create. In that way, it allows for not only an incredible amount of processing power and that really cool technology inside, but it is also giving people the freedom to make things wherever they want to.