My seventh grade typing teacher, whose name I sadly do not remember, saved my career.
All through elementary school, teachers pulled their hair out because my handwriting looked like I kept my pencil or pen clenched between my toes. Nothing could be done to change it. I think I saw my teachers looking surreptitiously at my hands once or twice, probably to check whether I possessed opposable thumbs.
But at the age of 12, I learned touch typing on a Royal 440 manual typewriter. Suddenly, I could communicate through the written word. The value of this skill was so obvious, even to an adolescent, that a Smith Corona electric typewriter was the only thing I bought with my bar mitzvah money. The rest went into my college fund.
The Smith Corona came with me to college. Eventually, I was so good at the keyboard that, when I started my journalism career, I could whip out stories faster than almost anyone. (They liked that at The Associated Press.)
My Smith Corona survived until 1986, by which time I was married and a business school student. The morning after it died, I bought my first home computer: an IBM PC clone made by a long-forgotten company called Leading Edge. Typewriters had already been overtaken by word processors, and word processors in turn were eventually made obsolete by much more versatile PCs.
Today, typewriters are coveted mainly by museums and a small retro-chic crowd. Personal computers are now ubiquitous, but are they destined to follow typewriters into technoblivion?
Probably. There is mounting evidence that the era of the home computer as we have known it is drawing to a close. Consumer PC sales continue to slow, and the back-to-school boost PC manufacturers have come to count on was nowhere in sight this fall. Rick Sherlund, an analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc. who focuses on Microsoft, recently predicted that no growth is left in the traditional personal computer market. He told Bloomberg Radio, “People just don’t need PCs the way they used to.” Barclays Capital’s hardware analyst, Ben Reitzes, likewise set his PC unit growth forecast to “flat.”
The personal computer’s slip is not surprising when you consider how many tasks that used to be firmly the domain of the desktop or laptop have migrated to other devices. My daughter watches Netflix on her television, which plugs into her home network’s router; even slightly older TVs can stream Internet video using a Wii, an Xbox, a TiVo or a Roku setup. Many people already do most of their web surfing, social networking and emailing on their smartphones, and the rapid adoption of iPads and other tablets means fewer people need to lug around anything that includes a built-in keyboard.
For now, there are tasks that are still better suited to a PC. But those tasks are largely things the average consumer does not often do, such as advanced sound mixing or video editing, or that the consumer may be willing to accept in a less than optimal version in exchange for convenience and portability, such as blogging or data manipulation. As Steve Jobs famously remarked a few years ago, the PC is a truck to the tablet’s car. Trucks are useful vehicles; they can do certain jobs cars can’t do well or at all. Some people just prefer trucks. But the car is the dominant mode of transportation for most people looking to get around. Trucks are usually a specialty product, not a staple. It’s easy to see how we’re already nearing that point with the home computer.
I think the next, and probably final, step in personal computing is the elimination of the keyboard itself. Even the best typists can’t type as fast as they can speak. The iPhone’s Siri feature is already training millions of people to tell their computer what they need by speaking aloud in natural language. While voice recognition software is never going to be perfect, I can assure you that, after more than four decades of practice, neither is my typing.
The transition has begun. The traditional definition of a computer - a device that has a central processor, information storage space, the ability to execute sets of instructions (once called programs, now apps), and a way to report its results - now applies to everything from an automobile to a thermostat. Computers are everywhere, but they are also becoming invisible, fading into the infrastructure of daily life.
The next generation may not have any idea what “QWERTY” represents. And maybe elementary school teachers won’t need to check whether all of a child’s fingers actually work properly before the child can communicate through text.
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