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Walt Mossberg is the author and creator of the weekly Personal Technology column in The Wall Street Journal, which has appeared every Thursday since 1991.  With Kara Swisher, he currently[…]

Watch for big changes in cell phones, wireless networks, and personal computing.

Walt Mossberg: The lucky thing about having this is the thing you write about several times a week is that it’s always changing.

I think if I were to just pick two or three interesting trends right now, one I think is the cell phone, or the device formerly known as the cell phone, which really has less and less to do with making voice calls.

The latest example is the iPhone from Apple, which is really a rather powerful little computer you can hold in your pocket. The Blackberry is also a computer. The Trio is also a computer. But the iPhone sort of takes it to a new level.

The evolution of that is going to be fascinating to watch. I believe the personal computer as we have known it has already peaked. I don’t mean that it’s going away. It’s still going to be the dominant device; but I think it has peaked because I think there are going to be a lot of other devices, and a lot of other methods for doing the digital things we have thought you needed a computer to do – a personal computer.

Closely related is the whole question of wireless networks. Basically they have been the province of huge, monopolistic, utility-minded companies who I like to compare to Soviet ministries who I think have tried to control far too much of the chain. The hardware, the software, everything you want to do on a device on somebody’s cellular network has, at least in the United States, and at least up to this point [Sep 2007], been heavily controllable by Verizon, and AT&T, and Sprint, and T-Mobile.

I think that’s about to blow up. I don’t mean that you’re going to wake up one day and the whole system is going to be blown up. I mean, I think we are just on the verge of seeing power flow away from those companies and flow to either tech companies like Google, or Apple, or companies like that; or consumers, or some combination of both.

I think Wi-Fi and WiMax and some of these other technologies have the possibility of blowing that open, and I think you’re going to see more freedom in the creation of software and services on those devices. So that’s another big thing.

I also think the less you hear the word “Internet,” the more integrated into our lives it will be. I compare the Internet to the electrical grid. The electrical grid is all around you. It’s in your home. It’s in your office. It’s in your hotel room. And there is an uncounted number of things that plug into the electrical grid. The television cameras we’re using to record this interview plug into the electrical grid. So does the toaster oven, and the electric toothbrush, and the hairdryer that you might have used this morning.

But you did not think to yourself when you put your toast in your toaster oven, “Hey, I’m using the electrical grid.” Or, “I’m going to use the electrical grid.” It would be laughable for you to say that.

I think the same thing is going to happen with the Internet. Instead of being seen, as a lot of people do, as some sort of activity you perform on a device that happens to be called a “personal computer,” the Internet is really an enormous grid or ocean of information – communications services, commerce, marketing, entertainment, all of these things. Information.

And there are going to be innumerable devices that will connect to it, tap into it, and just use enough of it to perform whatever function it is they are good at doing, in whatever context people want to use them in. So for instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect a pocket-sized device to do the same thing as a device with a larger display. You wouldn’t necessarily be surprised, I think, in 10 years that your microwave oven is plugged into the Internet. I think it will be. On the other hand, it won’t be plugged into the Internet for the purpose of you getting your e-mail on the door of the microwave. It’ll be plugged in so that when you put a package of frozen food in there, the oven will just read the barcode. It will have a connection to the Internet. It will have a database that will be constantly updated, and it will be able to properly heat up the food. That’s the only thing it will need the Internet to do, but it will need the Internet to do it.

So the Internet is a grid. Many devices, many kinds of software, many kinds of services running on those devices, all of which take advantage of the grid.

Already this is true to some extent, but it’s gonna become universal in 10 years. Whenever you watch television, you’re going to be on the Internet. Whenever you make a phone call, you’re going to be on the Internet. And nobody’s going to say, “I’m going to go online tonight and look this up.”

I think in 10 or 15 years when you see movies from today where people say, “I found this online. I’m going on the Web. Let’s go online and check it out,” people are going to laugh because we’re always going to be online. And so those are some of the big things that I think are going on.


Recorded on: Sep 13, 2007