The PC is dead. Long live the PC. In recent months, I've been sniffing the winds of change, trying to fathom the future for this most versatile digital device. At best the signals are mixed. At worst, you can make a pretty good argument for the imminent demise of the PC as we know it.
I've suggested, for instance, that it won't be long before nobody knows or cares about the chips inside their systems. Whatever PC you pick up, it will be good enough in hardware terms.
As part of this process of commoditisation, I reckon the GPU will disappear, subsumed into the coming generation of accelerated processing units, otherwise known as the fusion processor. For similar reasons, the enthusiast end of the market looks to be on its last legs.
Phone takes over
At the same time, the smartphone has taken over as arguably the most dynamic digital device. Phones are currently being swept along by a tidal wave of rapid development and innovation.
Inside of a decade from now, it's not hard to imagine a smartphone-like device with ample power to play HD video and games, along with the gumption for more serious office duties; a device that connects wirelessly to the displays and audio systems in whatever room you happen to be in.
At most you might need some dedicated input devices for serious work. I don't think the keyboard and mouse won't die for a while yet. But the point here is that you might not need a desktop PC at all.
The advantages of a consistent, personalised computing experience that can hook into whatever display you happen to have in front of you are obvious enough. Plugging into this more mobile and modular computing model are software and cloud services.
Web browsers are increasingly allowing both applications and users to be agnostic to operating systems and underlying computing architectures. Likewise, storage capacity or serious number crunching for the likes of content creation become non-issues with web services. Why do it on the desktop when you can lighten your load by using the cloud via your mobile digital device?
In defence of the PC
If that's a précis of the prosecution's case, the defence goes something like this. Ten years from now, PCs will be everywhere. They'll be powering your TV, they'll be driving your car, and they'll be in your pocket wherever you go. At least, they will if Intel and, to a lesser extent, AMD have anything to do with it.
Both companies would love to embed x86 PC processors into everything that moves and, frankly, most things that don't. For starters, PCs will soon be so powerful and cheap that replacing them with smartphones may be a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Who needs the complexity of wirelessly connecting your smartphone to a large display when PCs are a dime a dozen and the cloud can provide that all-important consistency of computing experience?
So, the desktop PC may have legs yet, albeit smaller and cheaper ones. As for opportunities for expansion, the key case studies are phones and TVs. It's difficult to predict how and when the PC might finally assimilate the TV.
PCs in TVs
History is strewn with valiant but failed efforts, including Microsoft's Media Center operating systems. However, when it comes to TV, the PC's status as the primary internet access device could be crucial. Intel certainly has its eyes on the prize and has been shacking up with anyone who will answer its phone calls.
Back in 2008, Intel was bedding down with Yahoo and its TV Widget Engine. More recently, Intel has been hawking its own Intel Smart TV initiative and cosying up to Google's TV effort in concert with hardware outfits Sony and Logitech. Still, I think the whole internet-enabled TV shizzle will get a lot more messy before it begins to settle down into something resembling a consistent platform that consumers can understand.
I'd therefore be very, very surprised if Smart TV or even Google TV was anything more than a stepping stone. It's a similar story with smartphones. Intel may have inked a deal with one of the biggest phone makers in Nokia.
However, Nokia is well off the pace in the smartphone market. Likewise, Intel has yet to prove it can make an x86 chip that can beat ARM's CPU architectures for both power consumption and performance.
With all that in mind, it could go either way for my favourite computing device. But you won't be surprised to hear that my money's on the PC popping up almost everywhere. Just don't expect it to always be recognisable as a PC.
First published in PC Plus Issue 300
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