The Last Days Of The Home Pc?

They're too complex for the job, and handier appliances are on the way

I recently bought a new home computer, and I feel it's well on its way to becoming obsolete. Not in the usual way of being superseded by PCs that are faster and cheaper. But in a more fundamental sense, the powerful but complex computers of today may be on their way out, at least in the home. Over time, they will be replaced by an assortment of simple devices, each specialized to perform one task.

This has been a dream of industry visionaries, but it's becoming reality because of two trends. First, PCs remain too intimidating for them to rise much beyond their current presence in about half of U.S. homes and far less in most countries. Second, the plunging prices of processors, displays, memory, and other key components are making cheap and simple--but powerful--devices practical. "The PC is too complicated," says Paul Horn, senior vice-president for research at IBM. "It will fragment into appliances."

These smart appliances have already begun to appear. The PalmPilot is the most popular of a range of handheld computers that manage your address book and calendar. The CrossPad is a digital clipboard that allows you to load into a computer what you write on ordinary paper. The electronic books that I wrote about in my Nov. 2 column are another example. Several printers, including the new Lexmark 5770, can use the memory cards from digital cameras to print pictures directly.

The trouble is that today's "information appliances" still require a PC. Some, like the CrossPad, are useless without a computer to connect to. Others, like the Palm, fall far short of their potential when used alone. Hooking them up to a computer is not always a pleasant process.

The answer lies in connecting these devices not directly to a computer but to a network of some sort. By the end of the year, software and hardware should be available to turn your existing telephone wiring into an inexpensive Ethernet network of the sort currently used to link up PCs. Wireless links are even better. Intel is leading a consortium developing a radio technology called Bluetooth that would allow appliances to hook up to a network instantly as soon as they come within range of another Bluetooth device.

Once you have a network to connect your information appliances to each other and to the outside world, you probably no longer need that vexing PC on your desktop. You still need something to tie all those devices together, manage a connection to the Internet, provide lots of room for file storage, and, if needed, do the heavy-duty computational work that cheap appliances can't handle. This is a description of a server, a powerful but hidden computer that has no need for a complex and trouble-prone graphic operating system. The PC "will become an information furnace in the basement, heating the bits for the house," says Neil Gershenfeld of the mit Media Lab.

Of course, there's a big item missing from this picture. What will you use for Web browsing, word processing, E-mail, financial management, and the other prime uses of home PCs today? The fact is that none of those functions require machines as powerful and complex as even the slowest computer now on the market. Apple Computer's simplified iMac is a step in the right direction, but it's still overpowered for the job. It's too expensive and depends on a general-purpose operating system.

A couple of years ago, there was much buzz about simplified network computers. These couldn't be designed for homes at the time because almost no homes had networks, while the plunging cost of regular PCs caused most companies to lose interest. The consumer network computer may be an idea whose time is almost here.

If you think about it, a computer that tries to do everything is bound to be complicated. There's a reason why we don't see combination stove-dishwashers or refrigerator-washing machines. But PCs try to be their electronic equivalent, and more. Technology has made these all-purpose PCs cheap, but at a big cost in difficulty.

In the business world, standard PCs will dominate for a long time to come, and many consumers will still want full-featured home computers. But most people use only a fraction of the functions available on the PCs they now have. Wouldn't you love to type a letter or browse the Web without being told that you have performed an illegal operation? You may find that a world of computers that do less, but do it much better, is very appealing.