Here's a question: you know who made the processor in your PC? I'm betting you do. But 10 years from now, you won't know and you won't care.
As for the average punter, in just a few years' time they will pay no more attention to the brand of computer chips inside PCs than they do to those in their HDTV. Which is to say, no attention at all.
The reason is this: even entry-level PCs today are good enough for nearly everybody, almost all of the time.
Think about it. When was the last time your PC couldn't open a document or play back a video stream because the processor wasn't fast enough or your video card didn't have enough stream shaders? That's assuming you even know what stream shaders are. If you've avoided finding out, I doff my GeForce GTX 480 to you.
It's useless information. It was likely many years and systems ago that your hardware last let you down. Put simply, modern PCs are plenty powerful enough.
More to the point, when people do have problems, it's likely thanks to an operating system riddled with viruses, trojans and spyware rather than a lack of CPU cores, graphics memory or bus bandwidth.
End of an era of enthusiasts?
It's not just mainstream hardware that's feeling the pinch: the wind has gone out of the enthusiast market, too. Whether it's graphics cards or motherboards, high-end kit seems ever-more futile. The ramifications of this are becoming more and more apparent.
For some companies, it means a change of emphasis. Motherboard maker DFI, for instance, appears to be giving up on enthusiast models. It will probably revert to making unbranded boards for OEM customers.
For a graphics chip maker like Nvidia, it's even more of a challenge. I'm not sure ultra-high-end graphics cards have ever made sense. Today, they're laughably irrelevant to all but a tiny minority of pathologically hardcore enthusiasts.
In fact, these enthusiasts aren't really even gamers – most gamers have consoles. Like me, only freaks who enjoy high-end hardware for the sake of it care about performance GPUs.
Admittedly, there is one exception to all this, and it's to do with bandwidth. By that I mean bandwidth of nearly all kinds – in and out of drives, on and off external storage devices and even to and from internal PC components.
However, with SSDs getting cheaper and interfaces such as SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0 on the cusp of ubiquity, it will only be a few more years before that final frontier is conquered. When that happens, the hardware industry truly will become commoditised.
Exactly what impact all this will have on the major players is a fascinating question. Already you can see this is something Intel, for instance, is really struggling to come to terms with. Deep down, Intel knows that the $1,000 CPU is not long for this world. It needs new revenue streams.
Probably the best case study here is the Atom processor. At launch, Intel was keen to big up Atom's capability, proclaiming it had squeezed the full x86 computing experience into a tiny, super-efficient chip. Soon after, Intel seemed to realise that Atom made its heavyweight – and higher margin – CPUs look pointless.
So the story changed and Intel executives began bad-mouthing their own product, effectively saying that the Atom processor wasn't the real x86 deal. At the same time, Intel is desperately trying to expand its repertoire into smartphones, set-top boxes and even cars.
Intriguingly, however, none of those applications will solve Intel's core dilemma. Nobody cares what CPU is powering their sat-nav system. Today, I would wager, a lot more people know the brand of CPU in their PC than their phone or set-top box. However, in a decade's time, Intel will be all but invisible to consumers.
For AMD, on the other hand, that may be no bad thing. It has always struggled to compete with Intel's marketing dollars. AMD would be all too happy to drop its ineffectual efforts to get into the minds of the buying public and get on with the job of supplying hardware manufacturers with 'good enough' chips.
As for what will replace the traditional list of componentry as the differentiator between one PC or laptop and another at the retail level, I say look to the smartphone. That means interfaces, apps, software and services – the ecosystem, as it's known.
More generally, I think PCs will increasingly be sold on the basis of presentation, polish and ease of use, not cores and clocks. But then, what do I know? I'm a hardware guy predicting his own demise.
First published in PC Plus Issue 298
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