In the quarter century since innovators such as Apple, Commodore, Tandy, and, eventually, IBM, pioneered the personal computer, the PC arguably has changed relatively little. It's obviously smaller and vastly more powerful than ever, but it relies on roughly the same architecture and design methodology as it did in the days when Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were laying the groundwork of what has become a $200 billion worldwide business.
Its uses have remained similar as well -- word processing, spreadsheets, and graphic presentation (since broadened to include the Web). In fact, the biggest departure from normal in the PC's history may have been its evolution into a communications device -- for sending and receiving e-mail and instant messages.
The PC as we know it may be on the cusp of an historic transformation, however. It seems likely that over the next decade makers of PCs will run into technological barriers -- the practical limits of miniaturization, for instance -- that will require new approaches to personal computing. To some extent, blowing through these limits will require unprecedented advances microprocessors and computer storage.
At the same time, many tasks that traditionally have been performed on PCs may move off the computer and onto networks or the Web -- a reversion, to some extent, to the days before PCs, when processing power sat on minicomputers that were connected to hundreds of "terminals." Here's a look at four key changes that have already begun -- and where they may lead eventually.
The Cooler, Faster Computer
For two decades, PC makers have lived by Moore's law -- the hypothesis of Intel (INTC ) co-founder Gordon Moore that processing speeds will double every 18 months while prices stay steady or fall. These gains have come mainly by increasing the so-called clock speed of computers -- the number of times per second that a microprocessor can process a set of instructions.
To deliver faster clock speed, chipmakers have built more powerful microprocessors and jammed more and more circuits per square inch of silicon. This need for speed means successive generations of chips have progressively generated more and more heat because they use more power -- also shortening the battery life of notebooks. Over the past decade, battery makers have been able to squeeze only 10% more performance each year from their products, vs. the 66% or so for chipmakers.
Now that they're facing some limits of physics, researchers have begun to refocus their efforts -- away from building chips that run faster to ones that can run more efficiently at existing clock speeds. "In the past, [increasing the] frequency [of processing data] was a means of boosting performance," says Shekhar Borkar, director of circuit research at Intel. "In the future, we'll have to be a lot more careful about how we get the performance."
Borkar believes a number of ways exist to improve performance without increasing power consumption. He says chipmakers could include within central processing units (CPUs) circuits that are dedicated to such jobs as recognizing voice, playing back video, and managing broadband connections. The approach, which is also being explored by IBM (IBM ) and Sun Microsystems (SUNW ), among others, is often referred to as building a computer on a chip. Once that can be done -- and it's already happening on circuit boards made by Taiwanese chipmaker VIA -- PCs will no longer need the individual power systems that were required when sound cards, for example, existed separately from the microprocessor.
More radical approaches are on the drawing board. Cooligy, a Silicon Valley startup, aims to build tiny radiators filled with water that's circulated by solid-state, electrically charged mini-pumps that essentially are highly porous glass disks. Initially, Cooligy is designing its units for workstations and other powerful, hot-running back-office computers. But PCs could be next, perhaps within two or three years, says Cooligy Marketing Vice-President Andrew Keane. "Today you can buy a mainstream PC with a DVD burner," he notes. "Two years ago, you couldn't. We hope the same dynamic applies to our technology."
Redefining the Computer
When Atari first popularized video games back in the 1970s, its simple systems ran on crude cartridges and limited internal memory. Contrast that with the latest version of the Microsoft (MSFT ) XBox, which has a hard drive, a more advanced graphics card than those found in most PCs, a high-power central processing unit, and a network interface card that can handle broadband connections.
The guts of today's Xbox could be used to build a decent personal computer -- and Xbox is hardly an anomaly. Most personal digital assistants (PDAs) that are built on Microsoft's Windows operating system are basically computers minus the hard drive. Cable-TV set-top boxes increasingly come equipped with digital processors and hard drives that support personal video recorders. Even cell phones are rapidly becoming computing powerhouses. Witness Nokia's (NOK ) Ngage, a cross between a cell phone and a gaming console plus digital entertainment center.
"You're beginning to see Nokia play with cell phones that look like set-top boxes," says William Raduchel, former chief technology officer of Time Warner (TWX ) and former chief strategy officer of Sun Microsystems. "If they get two megabits per second of bandwidth from some sort of wireless data system -- which isn't that far off -- then the cell phone and a set-top box won't look all that different."
As devices with PC-like capabilities proliferate, they'll increasingly specialize in such tasks as playing digital music and movies and handling Internet communications. As that happens, makers of PCs or consumer electronics may end up catering more to niche markets with devices that are similar inside but look wildly different on the outside. The spread of these niche devices has already started in the examples above of PCs that don't look like PCs and other systems.
Coming generations of digital cameras will have Wi-Fi connectivity and carry onboard processors to handle those interactions. But you won't be able to surf the Internet through your digital camera.
Even within the ranks of PCs, this differentiation has started to pick up steam. Both iTronics and Panasonic have built profitable businesses selling "ruggedized" laptops that can handle extreme abuse but are limited in form factor in terms of upgrades and other interior changes.
And Sony has focused marketing efforts on differentiating the VAIO laptop as a multimedia specialist. "Someone wants something that's really comfortable. Somebody else wants something that's really mobile," says Roger Kay, vice-president for client computing at tech consultancy IDC.
This trend could spell trouble for Windows, says Raduchel. He believes that makers of specialized devices and systems with PC capabilities but not the PC label will increasingly prefer Linux and other open-source operating systems that they can more easily customize and tailor to their needs. In the near term, Linux is more likely to conquer the new world of products that have the capabilities of PCs than it is to take over laptops and desktops themselves. "There will be more Linux PCs in households than people imagine, and people won't know they are Linux PCs," says Raduchel. The Network Becomes the Computer
In the 1990s, Sun CEO Scott McNealy pushed the idea of the "Network PC" -- a dummed-down personal computer tied to a powerful network. The idea never took root in corporations, but a variation of it eventually could with consumers.
The theory of why goes like this: Soon, the U.S. will be blanketed with wireless broadband connectivity. At the same time, broadband DSL or cable-modem service is finally becoming available in a majority of U.S. communities. So are advanced digital cell-phone networks.
The upshot is that consumers at home and businesspeople on the road will soon be able to get a fast signal almost anywhere. That will make it possible for them to do things that now require a PC without one -- since every terminal will become their personal PC. They could plug their PDA into a jack and grab all the data they need from their home PC 2,500 miles away -- just as corporations have been doing for some time with network drives and centralized mail servers.
In such a world, the laptop would be mainly a hedge against a lack of connectivity -- a device that lets workers be productive mainly when and if they can't establish a high-speed connection. As online computing becomes more reliable, the need for that hedge will start to disappear. "We're focusing on simpler clients and devices that move more of the data into the network," says Robert Morris, director of IBM's Almaden Research Center.
That still leaves an ergonomic problem of tiny screens. But IBM's Morris believes that engineers will figure out ways to maintain the current form factor of PC displays -- something that at a minimum is 8 inches by 11 inches, like paper, and therefore easy on the eyes. What will change is the displays will become more flexible, sometimes literally -- in the case of organic light emitting diodes that could lead to monitors as thin as posters and just as easy to roll up.
In other cases, users will plug a device into a network right next to a suitable display -- say, on the back of the seat in front of you on a train ride and use the data as needed without squinting at a tiny screen.
Storage, Storage Everywhere
For now, Morris notes, such networks remain too new and unreliable for his scenario to completely play out. "This is going to take some time," he says. "So what we'll do for quite a number of years is keep storage on the client [the PC] to be used as a cache. Storage will be used to cover the sins of the network, which is still narrowband."
That's a cheap, common-sense interim solution. Today, 40-gigabyte hard drives are standard on PCs -- and cost only about $40 or $50. And terabyte internal drives are on the drawing board. These would make storage of vast quantities of information an increasingly trivial task -- and would open up new uses for PCs and their cousins with PC capabilities. Cheap mega-storage means personal video recorders could be expanded to contain hundreds of movie titles as well as entire music libraries including hundreds of thousands of songs -- all pre-installed on a machine and waiting for credit-card activation.
Such warehouse-size PCs are already starting to appear. Microsoft and Apple (AAPL ) both have put together software and hardware combinations specifically for memory-intensive media such as film and music. And while networks outside the home might remain immature, building a high-speed network within four walls has become so easy that the concept of a media server -- a PC dedicated to serving the media needs of a household -- could attain mainstream acceptance within the next five years.
TiVO, the groundbreaking personal video recorder system that allows users to store hours of programming on a hard drive and watch at their own leisure, is nearly plug-and-play. That already goes a long way toward illustrating how the media server idea could work. Should the concept expand beyond mere video on a single TV to multipurpose servers providing all sorts of capabilities to connected terminals and monitors throughout a house, consumers might see less need to buy multiple PCs per household.
Thanks to these trends, among others, the PC business is entering an era of upheaval. The current PC world will remain intact, selling lots of boxes to companies and consumers for years to come. But the definition of a PC is broadening. So are the ways in which PCs or devices with PC capabilities are used, powered, and connected to networks.
From the garage to the ubiquitous desktop to millions of laptops took three decades. The coming transition could take that long. But it's clearly under way.
By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online