The Last Desktop

Post by Mike Klassen in

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Google on an Apple
Flickr photo by Missha

A story on Wired Magazine's blog about the future of Apple, the computer and entertainment company, provoked some thinking about my own experience around computers and entertainment systems, and its implications for our cities and communities.

In the past few weeks I reached a personal milestone by upgrading to a smokin' Mac laptop and retiring my bulky desktop PC. I bought my first desktop computer (one of the early Intel x86 chipsets) 2nd hand in 1988. It was owned by a coder friend who went on to become a Microsoft multi-millionaire in the 1990s. Oh, if only Gates & co. were hiring English Lit' undergrads back then...

What was basically a word processor with a 5 1/4" floppy drive as back-up, allowed me to channel my muse. I wrote my first story, the prime time TV paean known as The Laurie Partridge Diaries, and my widely-read piss take on classic rock's Stairway to Heaven on that dusty little DOS machine. It was also, thanks to the 2800-baud dial-up modem I shoved in it, my first entry point to the internet, albeit via a command prompt and not the sexier World Wide Web protocol introduced a couple years later.

I feel there is something symbolic in departing, after 20 years, from the often noisy, heat sink-ridden, power-hungry box that sits under your desk, to something light, powerful and mobile. My experience is hardly unique though. Laptops now outpace desktop sales for personal and business use for the first time in the history of personal computing. Smart phone technology and the introduction of Google's Android platform is spurring massive growth in the handheld sector. Vancouver's streets are blanketed by overlapping wireless routers named after pets and TV show characters.

Where is it all going? What is the critical mass that will make cities wake-up to the importance, and the cost-effectiveness of these social media? It would probably take a room full of experts to begin to scratch the surface of these questions. Nevertheless, it can't hurt to try.

Many of us in my East Vancouver neighbourhood have worked hard to cultivate important connections to enhance street safety, to improve local schools and parks. It should come as no surprise that all this community activity has generated some good friendships with neighbours. Their kids and ours play and are growing up together. On occasion we parents also get to goof off, drinking wine and sharing nibblies and bits of gossip at each others' kitchen tables.

This year several offers came in from neighbours to socialize on New Year's Eve, and in another lucky stroke our daughter was invited to a slumber party. Invites came in via email and Facebook. We wanted to hit them all so we had to plot out the night. Starting at our place with some friends and a few bottles of very good wine we began to coo about iTunes libraries and Hi-Def TVs, surround sound and Blu-Ray PS3s.

We talked a bunch about how we now consume entertainment. Trips to the cinema were very rare when big televisions and digital hi-fis (and lack of babysitting) make it hard to leave your living room. Why go to GM Place or a club, we thought, and get ripped off by Ticketmaster when you could invite ten friends into your house for a pay-per-view show?

Next we went to a house party where the host proudly demonstrated his Apple TV, where the album art from his music collection danced across the screen as we shook our butts to the beat. Next stop, another house party, where a couple of us deejayed in front of the home stereo using tracks stored on our iPhones until 3am. We're talking 40-somethings, not a bunch of college kids.

What I describe happened over 3 square blocks in my neighbourhood, but it is also happening all over the city. It is happening in cities all over the world. People have immersed themselves in communications technology because it is fun, they can afford it, and it keeps them connected with the world around them. For today's youth it has become the stuff of life. To be is to be digital.

Cities and governments at all levels must awaken to this connectedness, and find ways to make use of it. In the USA, a new president is blazing trails using the internet. Weekly addresses on YouTube.com, updates to supporters by email, and online forums to generate ideas and agreement don't cheapen the role of government, they make it relevant to all of us.

Most of us can barely grasp where mobile and smart phone technology will be five years from now, let alone much longer. I can hardly keep up with the iPhone apps being developed week after week. So what if a city engineer came up with a way for smart phones to interact with our streets? Let's say, for example, a low-watt wireless beacon with a small memory chip, something you could hold on the tip of your finger, was embedded in a lamp standard. By standing within a few metres of that lamp standard you could pick up a signal from it. The broadcast your handheld device receives provides a host of important local information:

  • the names of local schools and key contacts
  • locations of nearby amenities for recreation, local sports groups and clubs
  • a neighbourhood history that is managed like a Wiki
  • homes or apartments for rent in the area
  • community events, block parties, etc.

You can download the app for free. The information is managed by community volunteers. A company like Pattison Group installs them no charge to the city for the rights to post an ad somewhere nearby. If you want, you can leave a message of your own for others to read, view or listen to.

This is just a quickie idea. I'm sure there are thousands like them.

The cost to cities for ignoring innovation is that they will increasingly struggle to be heard by the public they serve. In my city no one saw fit to update us during a week of snow storms. It demonstrates an arrogance that doesn't give me great confidence in where they plan to take communications.

What prevents all cities from communicating with wireless apps or through social media channels like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube? Only money, vision, and political will.

What is your city or town doing to embrace new communications technologies? What places are doing this well, and affordably? CityCaucus.com wants to hear from you.

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