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The future of computer techs

© December 2006 Anthony Lawrence


At this time of year there are always parties: too much food, too much drink, and of course lots of far ranging conversations. This year one such conversation was about a neighbor's son who had started a computer business servicing home users. That hadn't gone well.. his father supposed that the decreasing cost of systems and competition from places like Geek Squad were the reason. I agree that low replacement cost makes such work difficult: you can't spend much time on a system unless you are charging very, very little. I'm not so certain that competition is anything to ever worry about; places like Geek Squad have the same low costs to fight against and also have the disadvantage of hiring relatively more costly sub-contractors. For whatever reasons, the kid moved on to servicing businesses, apparently concentrating on virus cleanup and maintenance. I've heard the same thing from other Windows folks: virus work is a major part of any Windows tech's business.

Dad asked a question: did I think that kind of work would continue to be a viable business in the future? I hesitated for a moment but then answered honestly: no, it almost certainly won't be. Security issues and spamming will always be important, but the human element will be taken out: hardware and software will take over entirely. That is still a few years away, but it's inevitable; his son needs to broaden his business. Unfortunately, I can't tell him what he needs to concentrate on; anything that is expensive and worth paying someone to do is a target for automation and commodification. Networking requires some intelligence and specialized knowledge now (I had to go set up a neighbor's computer with their new Verizon wireless router last week because their tech didn't know how to do it), but it requires far less then it did ten years ago. Programming will likely remain attractive for quite a while, but not everyone has the necessary skills for that. The only real advice I could give is that his son needs to keep learning, keep listening, and keep growing. That's the one skill you absolutely need.

Our conversation then turned to the future of computers in general. What did I think computers would be like twenty years from now? Boy.. twenty years? That's a long time.. but I think for the most part, computers as we know them now will have disappeared; they'll be incorporated in TV's and multifunction cell phones. Computing power will be everywhere, but most of it will be invisible, almost magical. Sure, there will still be people with traditional looking devices, but most users won't be using keyboards and the younger ones won't even think about "computers" as we do now.

Given my genetic history, I'm likely to live long enough to see all that and more. I wonder whether this web site will still be up and running, whether anyone will be reading it, and if so, what I'll be writing about.. if I'm "writing" at all then.

That all assumes that religious fundamentalists don't destroy us all, and that we don't starve to death because of fouling our environment and so on. But if we do dodge those bullets, I'm looking forward to the future.

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