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The Future of the PC

By Rob Enderle
Jan 24, 2005 5:00 AM PT

This month we've seen a number of vendors present their views of the next generation of the personal computer, starting with the traditional PC vendors at CES and ending with Apple at MacWorld. Let's spend this week talking a bit about the different camps. While it goes without saying that each is absolutely convinced it's right, each also has issues that need to be addressed.

The Future of the PC

Linux: In Search of Innovative Hardware

One of the problems with an initiative driven largely by programmers is that they feel the world would like what they like. This is similar to what happened when Windows first appeared: The technical programmers thought it was stupid, and Unix, for the most part, retained a heavy command-line interface capability to address this technical need. Competence is king with Linux, and those that lack that competence have found it difficult to install, maintain, secure and use the system.

The first true commercial desktop version of Linux was from Lindows, now called Linspire. From a distance the product looks a lot like Windows, and many things even seem to work the same way. However, this is a hardware-driven distribution, and if you want a decent game or third-party application to run on it, you have to use an emulator. Emulators are getting better, but they still consume about 40 percent of your available performance.

Novell, Red Hat and others have a number of hardware partners that could make this situation interesting, and IBM's divestiture of its PC unit may position it for a repeat of the relationship it once had with Microsoft, only this time with Novell or even Red Hat. The end result may be very close to a Linux version of the Mac OS on Intel, with a different application set but a similar user experience. This is probably one of the main reasons Apple is refusing to let a version of iTunes for Linux see the light of day.

The problem with products associated with this platform include fragmentation, the lack of a common strategy and an almost exclusive focus on low price. The lack of commonality suggests that interoperability problems will increase over time, and the excessive price focus suggests that products may not have the quality this segment demands. Still, TiVo is a good-quality offering, it is sold at an attractive price, and it runs on Linux. That shows Linux is viable, just as TiVo's lack of profitability shows the risks.

Apple: A Trip Back to the '90s

Apple's latest offering, the Mac mini (I'm assuming Apple isn't planning a Big Mac), is similar to the old Apple Cube in many good ways. It has a clean industrial design and is easy to set up and use. The old Cube was well received for its looks, but it was horribly designed, which led to its market failure. The mini is well designed and arguably the best value in an Apple PC today.

It is also very limited, having been crippled intentionally so it doesn't cannibalize iMac sales. Apple machines now come with a fairly complete software bundle, which is good because third-party software support has been dropping over the last several years. Apple is still executing on the "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine" rule when it comes to third-party developers, and as a result developers are largely staying away from the platform. Reportedly HP is no longer ordering iPods, suggesting that that relationship is on the rocks as well. And we have discussed Apple's litigation with retailers in a previous column.

Still, the Mac mini and iMac are the closest things to an appliance PC we have in the general market, and that market has been screaming for an appliance PC for some time now. Unfortunately, Apple is so horrible at partnering that it's a wonder anyone resells their products. Even though the mini concept may be the future of the PC market, Apple probably won't be driving it unless the company fixes its anti-partner and anti-sharing attitude.

HP, IBM, Clear Cube and PC Blades

Coming from left field we have HP and ClearCube (resold by IBM Global services) and the concept of PC blades. This takes the blade server concept that slammed into the market during the dot-com years and applies it to desktop computing. A blend of the thin-client market (now largely led by Wyse), blade servers, and traditional PC technology, it is one of the most forward-looking offerings available.

The product is far from consumer-oriented today, but it promises the user the closest thing to a utility-like experience in which hardware failures, for the most part, can be fixed by simply rebooting -- the switch from a failed blade to a new blade happens automatically in the background. Data and the expensive bits are physically secured and fully redundant, so disasters have less likelihood of destroying the business, and theft is far more difficult.

A variant could be supplied by a service at some future point with a cable TV-like revenue model and user experience in which the user paid a monthly fee for secure, reliable and easy-to-use technology. Although these currently run Windows, there is nothing to say they couldn't run Linux, and both IBM and HP have shown increasing interest in the alternative platform.

This has two problems: It currently lacks the common cross-vendor standards needed to make this move widely in either the consumer or corporate markets, and it is still relatively expensive to deploy (though it is vastly less expensive for most to support).

Microsoft: The Embedded Stealth Strategy

One of the most successful groups in Microsoft is the embedded group. It is most focused on vertical clients, it currently dominates the markets it serves, and its customers are some of the most content in any company. This, I'm sure you would agree, is all somewhat unexpected for Microsoft. If we were to use this group as a template, the future of the PC would be filled with unique flavors better targeted at what you wanted to do -- rather than the Swiss army knife approach we have today.

In the living room you would have a TiVo-like PC -- much like what HP built with its new Linux-based media hub -- that did a few things very well and lacked even the ability to run most applications (and viruses) so that it could be on seven days a week, 24 hours a day without concern. For those who wanted to play games, another box, networked to the first, would be optimized for games much as the Xbox is now. (By the way, I wonder how many realize that the new Mac mini is similar to the Xbox in many key ways.)

In the office, the machine would be optimized for e-mail, general document creation and Web services (with a huge focus on search). In the kitchen, another variant designed for that environment would be used. The only general use product would be a portable computer, but one that would vary even more greatly in size and capability then what we have today.

The problem is that this is not currently the path that Microsoft is on, and recalling that HP went with Linux for its offering suggests Microsoft isn't yet saying the things that at least one vendor wanted to hear. (Though, as mentioned last week, that may have suddenly changed, thanks to HP).

The vendor that will win will be the one that drives the standards and stays focused on the emerging customer needs in this segment. This probably says a lot about Intel's recent customer-focused reorganization and the recent moves by IBM/Lenovo and HP.

Next week we will look at some of the actual forward-looking products, both from vendors you know (such as Dell) and some you don't (such as Kloss) in our quest for the future of the personal computer.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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