PCs: The Buzz Is Back

Macs with Intel chips and a new Windows will bookend '06


Could 2006 be the year that personal computers once again dominate the technology news? PC innovation has been in short supply, and the last really big events came in 2001 when Apple (AAPL ) released its OS X operating system and Microsoft (MSFT ) followed with Windows XP. Next year promises to bring major changes in both software and hardware.

Apple and Microsoft will again provide the bookends for the year. In January, Apple is expected to unveil the first Macs based on Intel (INTC ) processors. These are likely to include a new generation of mobile chips designed to bring more desktop-like performance to Windows and Mac laptops. And in the fall, Microsoft will release a version of Windows, called Vista, that will bring the first major change in the look and feel of the operating system in a decade. Even without seeing the final product, Microsoft critics already are deriding Vista as just another pretty face. But its real importance lies in security enhancements designed to attack the plague of viruses, worms, and spyware that is crippling computers and damaging consumer confidence in online commerce.

PCs won't upstage the iPod in 2006. Indeed, the advances we'll see in computing all reflect the importance of digital entertainment, which the iPod helped establish. After all, we don't need more powerful computers or new Windows to improve the experience of reading e-mail or writing memos. The power boost is required for a better rich-media experience, especially high-quality video.

Apple also helped set the stage for a leap in Internet-based programming. The buzz became a reality in 2005, especially with Disney's (DIS ) deal to sell TV shows at the iTunes Music Store. Now Yahoo! (YHOO ), America Online (TWX ), and others are readying their own offerings. But I think video on the Net won't score in the mass market until it becomes easy to watch on your big-screen TV, not just on a PC or an iPod.

THERE ARE STILL LOTS OF PROBLEMS to work out before you can easily download TV-type programming and view it wherever you want. A new Intel platform called Viiv is designed to make this easier by building media-sharing capabilities into standard PC hardware. Viiv will appear in early 2006 on Windows XP Media Center Edition PCs. But by duplicating in hardware the functions of Media Center software, Intel is challenging Microsoft for dominance in the digital living room. The big surprise of 2006 could be an Apple-Intel alliance that brings Viiv capabilities to the new Intel-based Macs. Apple recently added some Media Center-like capabilities to its iMac line with a program called Front Row. It can show videos and photos and play music on a Mac from across a room, using a remote instead of a mouse and keyboard.

Front Row, however, lacks the Media Center's ability to connect to a home entertainment system and zip music or movies to any room in the house. A partnership could allow Intel to do the technological heavy lifting, while letting Apple apply its incomparable talents for design and ease of use. I can't promise that Apple and Intel will actually get together and build the perfect digital entertainment hub -- thus disrupting the info-tech industry, consumer electronics, and the entertainment biz all in one shot. But it could happen.

Even without such a move, the new products from Apple and Microsoft are big deals. An Intel-based Apple will move the Mac toward the computer mainstream while keeping its distinctiveness. As for Vista, even though the most important changes will be under the hood, a system designed from the ground up for secure computing should give us PCs that are not only safer but considerably more reliable.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for your support and wish you the best for a happy, healthy, and secure 2006. And keep those e-mails coming.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at www.businessweek.com/technology/wildstrom.htm

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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