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.
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.
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.
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 United States 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.