Grids and Minis
There are two opposing forces separating the hardware aspect of the computer industry - on one hand we have the Mac Mini showing that we do not need to have a (multiple) large ugly beige box(es) around the house. At the other end we have the ubiquitous computing platform from which all we ask is for storage and compute cycles.
In the household the ease of use, no wires, and seamless connectivity with all other appliances is going to be the driver for consumer purchases. Macintoshes are just so much easier to use and integrate into a digital lifestyle and for techies we can get to the internals of Unix with no problems - think remote management of Unix versus Windows. How long before we have remote management services for the home network?
On the corporate front I have gone from managing large internal data centers, to leasing rackspace, power and bandwidth to totally managed systems, where I request boxes on a demand basis and then install application software. Here we are still dealing with unique boxes and leasing boxes as a representation of computer resources. It is cheaper in most cases to lease boxes on demand rather than own them, but the real advantage will come when we break free of the computer box and have a true grid.
It is a question of degrees of freedom - with a box (even in a 1U form factor) the degrees of freedom are limited and the amount of management required for load balancing etc is too much. Installing software on multiple boxes and then configuring load balancing etc. should not be required. This is true whether we are in a home setting or using corporate resources - our thinking is constrained by physical boxes. The ideal situation is being able to inject software into a domain and have it managed on demand.
Today we have a one to one correspondence between boxes and resources. This dependency needs to be broken to create the next wave of innovation and ease of use. The question is whether the innovation will come from the hardware vendors or whether some smart software will abstract the hardware into a virtual grid is the question. Realistically both need to happen, however the software will probably come first as the hardware makers are too entrenched in shipping boxes to change.
Once this happens and it will the question will be how to access resources in the local and global grid - this is when things will get fun as there are no longer compute or storage boundaries - we are no longer navigating static information but information that is changing as we interrogate it and follow meaning provided by the compute resources. A bit far fetched? not really, I believe we are only a 5-7 years away from this in terms of software. The hardware will follow the software as the need to own hardware is going to go the way of owning power generators and telephone switches. It is perhaps time to start thinking about the software foundations of this new platform.