It's a wild time in personal technology. Microsoft's going all in on the cloud and shifting away from the desktop. Gartner's forecasting slowdowns in smartphone sales. PC sales are make headlines for their gradual decline. What does this all point to? People sitting in the audience during the Lenovo keynote on Thursday morning got a roadmap for what one company is betting on for its future: A post-PC environment where powerful and sophisticated technology is mixed and matched like so many techno-Legos and the user experience relies on strong network and constant connectivity to the cloud. Oh - and add a healthy dose of augmented reality (AR) into the experience too.
Here are the biggest hardware takeaways from the keynote and the demo — and how they'll affect consumer marketplace choices in the very near future.
THE FUTURE MOVES AWAY FROM THE ALL-POWERFUL PC
During CES 2016 this past January, I had the opportunity to test-drive some of Lenovo's hardware, and the products that fascinated me the most were the X1 tablet and the ThinkPad stack, because they demonstrated a really interesting model for computing: One utilitarian hub device and a series of task-specific, modular peripherals. Initially, I liked the idea because it seemed friendly to a mobile workforce: Instead of wearing a dent in your shoulder while schlepping a laptop computer and a portable projector and a boatload of cables and a phone and a tablet, etc. in one bag, you'd have a smaller, lighter satchel filled with the swappable components you used.
Six months later, the reason I like the swappable-modules computing model is because it allows for something that was previously unthinkable for the typical computer user: Being able to customize your computing environment so every tool is the best one for what you do. Lenovo's de-emphasizing the computer as the brains of the your computing operation; now, it's more of a powerful hub, and the real smarts come from the specialized modules users add or subtract depending on their needs.
When the Moto Z was introduced today, it was evident that the same model - powerful hub, specialized swappable parts — now applies to mobile phones. This was laid out in one of the keynote slides: because the phone is small and portable, it makes sense to shift the primary user-computer relationship from a desktop or laptop computer to the phone, then work on creating a constellation of complementary hardware, software and services.
THE FUTURE FOCUSES ON THE RIGHT HARDWARE FOR THE JOB
One of the key building blocks of this post-PC landscape is specialized hardware. While the Swiss Army Knife model for laptops and phones has served us pretty well — hands up, everyone else whose phone doubles as their primary camera and e-reader — there's a lot of opportunity for improved performance and productivity when users have the ability to optimize their hardware to do a few tasks very, very well.
Here's a Moto X phone and the battery module you can snap on to extend your phone's life.
Lenovo had already rolled out examples of this with the X1 tablet and the ThinkPad stack, both of which rely on modules to extend the functionality of the hub device. Now this model's coming to the phone. Two of the first three available modules position the phone mostly as an entertainment device — they amplify the phone's speakers (one hopes this is an alternative to conference calling, because lord knows tech needs to disrupt that stale and frustrating sector) or they project the video that plays on the phone's streaming-media app. But subsequent modules could encourage other uses for the tiny computer that just happens to make phone calls: casual gaming, e-reading, drawing, photography under special conditions.
There are some concerns, of course. During an audience Q&A, designers and engineers from Verizon and Lenovo assured us that each device's design was rigorously tested to ensure that phones and modules worked even after they were dropped, after modules accidentally got knocked off the phone, and after the modules had been snapped on and off the phone countless times. But we have yet to see how these things perform in the wild, and nobody ever went broke underestimating the inventiveness with which people contrive off-label uses for their technology. It'll be interesting to see how performance and connectivity hold up in the long term.
Another, more abstract concern: Right now, the phone-plus-modules set-up lives squarely under the Lenovo label. Will there be room in the future for third-party modules that do the same things the Lenovo modules do? Will there be room for non-Lenovo modules that can do things that none of Lenovo's modules can do? (For example, there's currently no storage module or media server. I'd love to see a company like Drobo produce one.) I'm curious to see how open to third party vendors this hardware model will be.
THE FUTURE LOOKS GREAT FOR PEOPLE WHO GREW UP ON THE SIMS
Toward the end of the keynote, we saw one of the first practical, consumer-oriented applications for augmented reality: Lowe's Vision. I also got a few minutes of hands-on time with it later. The most notable and useful thing about Lowe's Vision is how it lets your phone do the fiddly work of measuring a room or the elements in it, then pulling together a room layout for you. As someone who's sunk a lot of time into software that does this (looking at you, IKEA kitchen planner), having a handheld device whip up a CAD of your space in moments is pretty powerful.
Where I'm not yet sold is on the experience of outfitting that room. While I like and appreciate the tool for its ability to help you do early visualization of the room, there's still a very real visual gap between the model on the screen and what an actual, physical space should look like. For decisions that hinge on a faithful recreation of a visual detail — the texture of a flooring material, for example, or the exact shade of a rug — this lack of visual fidelity is a weakness. I'm sure it'll be addressed in subsequent iterations of the site as the data used to generate the Lowe's-related products becomes much more extensive.
However, I'm willing to concede the visual tweaks might be a generational thing. I missed the Sims' big breakout as a computer game and I'm not a digital native when it comes to the idea that CAD-generated environments. For people who poured hours into crafting the perfect Sims home, Lowe's Vision may be a logical extension of that experience.
I had a similar reaction when I was using the Phab2 Pro to check out the digital dinosaurs walking on a table. They're nowhere near Jurassic Park-level quality, and my reaction was a lot less open-mouthed wonder and a lot more "Well, the real challenge will be Pixar-quality rendering on a consumer-level phone." But, again, I'm not a gamer and I didn't grow up with this kind of rendering as visually normal. And it is pretty cool to think about an augmented reality where you can transpose an image over a real setting to get an idea of what it might look like. When there are more partners for this — say, a gardening center that can help you see what to plant during which season — we'll really see how well this sort of augmented-reality rendering works for people.