Take one look at the computer displays at your local big-box retailer, and you're lost in a sea of sameness. PC performance has come a long way in three decades, but their design hasn't. But behind the scenes, the industry is looking to change that (see BW Online, 6/8/04, "The Future of Computing"). Not surprisingly, Microsoft (MSFT ) is leading some of the most innovative research, including ultrawide, high-resolution displays that allow workers to see several applications running at once and futuristic workstations that integrate cradles for PDAs, tablet PCs, and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phones into one sleek desktop.
At last month's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, Microsoft showed off its latest prototype: a hub for highly digitized households of the future dubbed the Windows Home Concept PC, designed along with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ). Among the system's features are high-definition audio and video output, wireless music and video streaming, voice command capability, and personalization through biometric identification.
Instead of a keyboard, which would hardly seem at home in the living room, it has a tablet PC and a Bluetooth remote control, both of which do double duty as screens for displaying information like caller ID or the subject line of an incoming e-mail. Maybe the best part: an "instant on" feature means the PC is up and running in just a couple of seconds.
Of course, it's only a concept, with no word on when or if hardware companies will cotton to Microsoft's ideas. Yet the research gives hope that the industry can breathe new life into a stale, commoditized product. BusinessWeek Dallas Correspondent Andrew Park recently spoke with Tom Phillips, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Hardware Experience Group, about the future of PC design. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: What's the focus of Microsoft's research into the PCs of the future?
A:In today's world, the customer is really the systems integrator. Hardware has been developed independent [of software and other hardware]. The point and time that those really meet is when a customer buys a system.
We really have to design in more of a user context. What is it that the customers are trying to accomplish? Are they trying to integrate a digital camera? No, they're trying to print their pictures.
Q: How would that kind of thinking change the design of PCs?
A:You or I have the technical capacity to use a PC today. But there are many people in developing countries who don't. We can really make it terribly simple to take your PC out of the box, turn it on, and make it work.
What the industry has struggled with it today...is, do we try to integrate everything into one package that meets every need for a customer? Or do we instead let a customer pick the devices that map best to a customer? [Either way,] a PC with intelligence around charging and synchronization, can be the central hub.
Q: How do you figure out what changes would make the PC better?
A:One of the things that we do and share with our hardware partners is a level of ethnographic and genitive research, so we can really understand what are the leading types of usage that would really make [the customer's] life better. There's work we could do to make our product more relevant and more interesting to customers. The mobile devices are where you're starting to see that metamorphosis begin. We're just beginning this change.
Q: How should the look of the PC, which has stayed largely the same since the first IBM (IBM ) machine debuted in 1981, change?
A:A great product captures as much of your soul as your attention. It has to hit in an emotional spot. We have to compliment some of the design work done by some of our competitors [such as Apple (AAPL )]. As an industry, we haven't yet had the opportunity to do that.
Q: Do you realistically have that opportunity, considering how much pressure there is on PC makers to keep costs low and price aggressively?
A:We have to be sensitive about that. We have to spend a lot more time on the research, making sure we're doing the kinds of innovation that map to customer requirements.