Personal computers, says entrepreneur Kristoffer Lawson, haven’t changed much in 20 years. It’s still a box, a screen and, if you’re using a desktop, a keyboard.
But Lawson thinks that the era of cloud computing deserves its own kind of computing device. Portable, but more powerful than a mobile, designed to be plugged into any desktop screen and with a new kind of operating system that connects more fluidly to your contacts. And at a launch in San Francisco on 15 October, that’s what Lawson and the rest of the Solu team unveiled.
Solu might look like a drinks coaster but don’t put your coffee on it; this is a four-inch wide block of curved, wood-encased computer with an edge-to-edge touch screen. Inside is a powerful 2.3GHz processor, battery and Wi-Fi capability. It can be used on its own or paired with a keyboard and a display up to a resolution of 4K. When paired in this way, the Solu acts as an input device instead of a mouse.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about for 15 years, but back then the technology that would have allowed us to do this would have been so complex and expensive – particularly the hardware – that it would have been impossible,” says Lawson in a disorienting Belfast-Finnish accent.
He describes Solu as “the smallest general purpose computer ever created”. At around 10cm squared with a thickness of 12mm it is indeed small – more like a mobile phone than a PC, but with processing punch.
Lawson has been working on Solu’s hardware and operating system for the last 12 months, with a team that includes the former Nordic director of TMF Group Javier Reyes and Pekka Nikander, who founded IT security consultancy Nixu.
The team was, says Lawson, attracted to the leaping ambition of the Solu project: to disrupt the personal computing establishment. “When the challenge is big enough, the smart people will get inspired.”
Lawson draws directly on experience building Holvi, a simple online banking and accountancy service. Like banking, personal computing is a market that’s been dominated by major players like Microsoft and Apple for decades. The mobile revolution has given us computing power on the move, but the desktop staple – particularly the user interface – has remained unchanged.
Lawson’s biggest gripe with today’s computers is “how badly they use the internet as part of their whole experience”.
“Yes we have email but we’re still fighting with backups, hard drive space and downloading and installing applications,” he says. “The whole internet is not a natural part of the computer itself. If you run out of local resources, you’re screwed.”
With Solu, the hardware is linked directly to a cloud service the team has built, with data centres located in Finland. The cloud gives the user ability to scale up, while the local device acts as a smart cache with a capacity of 32GB.
The obvious comparison is Google’s Chromebook, but Lawson points out that this competitor “is basically just a web browser” and the “desktop experience is extremely limited”. Solu, on the other hand, is designed to work offline. Any changes made offline are synced as soon as the device goes online.
Solu’s interface is striking. It completely eschews the mathematical information architecture of Windows and OS X – where content is arranged by file type or storage location – in favour of something more visual. Collaboration spaces are presented as a series of bubble-like nodes connected together like neurons: emails, presentations, images and collaborators are all represented equally in the same space.
“There are now windows, no menu bars, no icons. All that goes away. The user interface is built around working together in an internet connected environment. Say goodbye to the personal computer. This is all based on collaboration,” says Lawson.
In addition to the unusual interface there’s an unusual, Spotify-like business model. The user pays a fixed monthly fee on top of the initial purchase price – around $20 (£13) a month – in return for an unlimited amount of storage and access to apps. The subscription revenue is then allocated to developers of apps based on usage rather than one-off downloads.
Solu is asking a lot of its customers. They need to buy into new hardware, new software and a new way of paying for and interacting with content. The interface people have grown to use over the last 30 years might not be intuitive, but it is now familiar. While it seems organic, there’s very little that’s familiar about interacting with Solu.
When the device was demonstrated on stage at the launch event in San Francisco this week, it became clear that the technology had teething problems – attributed unconvincingly to the venue’s weak Wi-Fi. Head of design Joona Kallio admitted after the launch presentation that some of the details – including specific subscription prices and battery life reporting – are still being fine-tuned in advance of the estimated shipping date of May 2016.
Despite these challenges, Lawson remains extremely bullish. He’s says he’s not looking to be bought by Google for $40m. “We want to build it into a real company with a business model.”
He referred to a prediction by venture capitalist Fred Wilson, who said that by 2020 the top three technology companies will be Facebook, Google and something else – not Apple, the largest company in the world by market capitalisation. “We’d like to see ourselves in that top three,” Lawson says.
Forrester technology analyst J P Gownder poured a little rain on the parade, pointing out that smartphones are becoming ever more sophisticated, and dominant operating systems such as Windows are evolving across devices.
“It’s hard to imagine Solu taking off in an era when mobile operating systems (iOS, Android) offer so much value, and at a time when Windows 10 now runs across all form factors. The chances of a new ecosystem emerging around this device seem slim,” he said.