The Coming Visual Computing Revolution

For the last decade, the PC market has kind of sucked. Against the massive growth of the ’90s, and with the exception of Apple, which didn’t do well in that decade, the PC market has been a poor reflection of the excitement that once surrounded it. Part of the problem was the focus on computation and the lack of focus on things that make computing exciting. In this respect, Apple was the exception, and the fact that it put much more emphasis on the visual aspects of computing — and recently put a graphics chip in every computer — helps explain why users tend to be more excited about Apple products. They have, until now, virtually stood alone — but that is about to change.

That’s because your computing experience is about to start changing radically and could revolutionize the world. While I think Apple will benefit from the coming changes, this time it won’t be the only company that does.

I’ll close with my product of the week: the latest MediaSmart Server from HP, which has a feature that enhances this video revolution.

Visual Computing and Networking

What’s driving this trend? PC computing has been less than exciting for some time. PC gaming, which used to drive the performance curve, is limping along. Games like “World of Warcraft” can be easily run on hardware that is years out of date. Microsoft’s big push has been the Xbox, and Apple really never got that excited about PC gaming in the first place; it seems more interested in iPhone gaming at the moment.

Yet the industry focused on desktop performance, and the end result was a growing gap between the excess performance you bought and the performance you actually needed. No wonder netbooks are so hot — they provide adequate performance at extremely aggressive prices.

However, while desktop requirements stalled, Internet performance requirements started to spike. Visual high-definition content on the Web was driving that spike. iTunes, YouTube, Hulu and, most recently, OnLive started showcasing ways to do some amazing things with Internet services. While the others are interesting, OnLive is an eye opener. Here’s a gaming service that promises you can play any game via the Internet, and it demonstrates how well it works with one of the most performance-intensive games on the planet, “Crysis.”

People want their video content on iPods, phones, car media systems and all around the home. The existing PC architecture is simply not set up for this demand — putting need ahead of performance once again and setting us up for a major change.

AMD and Cisco: Visual Servers

The concept of video in the cloud got Cisco excited first, and it started to float the idea of visual networking, which went to the core of much of what it was developing both for homes and businesses. However, its entry into servers surprised the market, and it was clear it was going to take servers in a direction that no one else had yet gone. That was the first real attempt to create network-aware servers — but the goal was visual computing, which suggested a different direction.

That direction may be coming from AMD, which just reorganized and placed its leading graphics business leader where its top server executive used to be. This suggests that AMD is quietly working on a way to deliver the visual computing performance that Cisco is looking for — and that services like OnLive will desperately need.

Apple and Intel

Apple TV was the first product in a long time that disappointed the company to a degree that it called it a hobby. However, the work that Apple and Intel did spurred a lot of rethinking about what a visually optimized PC should be. As a result, Intel’s digital home group rethought the PC architecture to create something that outperforms even high-performance PCs on video, and yet can be priced for use in an Apple-TV-like set-top box or inexpensive PC. Intel did this by breaking the current model of optimizing a platform for the CPU and instead optimizing it for video performance.

The end result is one of the best executed efforts inside of Intel since the birth of the microprocessor — and it’s all focused on this new world of video performance.

Initially this technology will show up in products like Apple TV and Blu-ray players that can be used for advanced Internet streaming and upscaled video viewing. Eventually, this technology should find its way into PCs, and Apple’s unique connection to this effort could make it a market leader with this new technology.

As a side note, Jim Handy, one of the analysts I work with, is convinced that Apple’s processor team and Apple’s purchase of some unique flash memory suggests it’s going to have an amazing PC on the market shortly — one that is unique and will outperform anything else on the market. As I’m finishing this, Futuremark has released a new benchmark called “PeaceKeeper,” which measures browser video performance. Currently, the Safari 4.0 beta is blowing everyone else away. Apple may be setting up to make a big move.

Nvidia: Video ‘R’ Us

Nvidia — the only vendor almost entirely focused on video that’s still in the market — may particularly benefit from this change in focus from CPU computing to video. It has been aggressive with technologies like 3D Vision and Ion. Ion is a technology that adds graphics to products in the sub US$400 section of the market, which continue to sell sharply in defiance of the current malaise in the segment.

Last week, I wrote about making a difference. Nvidia is using its CUDAdeveloper platform to dramatically lower the cost of imaging equipment — the kind of equipment that’s used to find oil, or do medical or scientific research. Because it will be vastly more affordable, there is a very real chance of this equipment producing results that could eventually save your life. Now, that is truly making a difference. This, coupled with Nvidia’s Tesla technology, also could eventually be used for a video server back end.

However, Nvidia’s biggest bet may be Tegra, a technology that can put high-definition graphics in the phone or other highly portable devices. People want video wherever they are, and Tegra may eventually give you access to everything mentioned so far — in high resolution, in a device you can put in your pocket.

I saw this demonstrated in high-definition on a movie screen — try that on a current-generation iPhone. Tegra defines the concept of a revolution, and with Tesla and CUDA, Nvidia may be the only one trending to an end-to-end solution.

Wrapping Up: Technology Boom Coming?

Whether it is visual computing or networking the next age of computing is being created by a variety of vendors. Yes it will increasingly be cloud based but it also will be increasingly visually exciting and it may eventually fuel the kind of growth that could recreate the technology boom of the ’90s.

We are just waiting for someone to have an “ah ha” moment and put it all together.

Product of the Week: Second Generation MediaSmart EX Server

I’ve been using a MediaSmart server since HP launched its home server platform. It continues to run like a champ, does seamless backups in the background, and serves up my files in a secure fashion on the Web.

The configuration I prefer is the EX, and at US$699, you get about 1.2 terabytes. At current prices, you can add another two terabytes for under $200. This kind of storage only makes sense if you put a lot of video on the product — but then what are you going to watch it on?

This is where the EX version shines: It has a built in transcoder and will take your video and automatically resize it for PCs and handheld devices. So, if you want to watch it remotely on a laptop or phone, you can do so without waiting for it to be resized. If you have a lot of video it initially takes a while, but no other product like this is so well-tuned for video, which is why the HP MediaSmart Server EX is my product of the week.

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


  • I like your article overall but I’m going to disagree with your optimism concerning Nvidia.

    The concepts of PhysX, CUDA and Tesla are all great but about 10 years too late. With the pending release of DX 11/OpenCL most of what the NV versions accomplish will be rendered obsolete virtually overnight. At least as far as it requires you to have an Nvidia product.

    In order for Ion to take off, they are going to have to overcome the marketing practices of Intel so they can compete against Atom. AMD will be releasing the Neo. AMD also has Fusion and given that Nvidia has no x86 path they will be unable to even enter that market.

    That basically leaves the high-performance/enthusiast segment open to Nvidia where they are struggling desperately to get their act together on that front.

    When you add in their ongoing issues with manufacturing, recalls and history of manhandling customers and partners their future seems bleak at best.

    • With NVIDIA you are correct they lack the x86 base they need to complete a system and both Intel and AMD are moving to an integrated model which could lock them out. On the other hand while DX 11, and OpenCL are coming they aren’t here yet and by moving on Cuda NVIDIA is capturing a lot of the initial interest and it is generally easier to keep developers than to capture them in the first place. On Physics you have the Intel/Hazard stuff and PhysX, I have yet to see a compelling game that uses either so can’t call a winner here yet and AMD might be better off licensing a technology that Intel didn’t own given Intel is killing cross licenses right and left with both NVIDIA and AMD at the moment. What NVIDIA does have is breadth from servers all the way down to hand held computers with automotive in the middle suggesting they are the one to beat on a graphics pure play for the future.

      AMD has the x86 part that NVIDIA misses and is creating a very interesting Fusion Platform, they lack the product reach that Intel and NVIDIA have but they make up for that with a tighter platform focus. The problem is the solution spans from handhelds to servers and AMD no longer has the handheld space. So they are stronger on PCs and potentially (talking graphics) stronger on servers, but they don’t have the reach needed to complete the solution and drive the market.

      Intel owns x86 but that actually hinders them in graphics as this is like a religious argument for them and I worry that their impressive Digital Home effort will get stomped for being on the wrong side of the internal Intel power curve. Clearly Intel has the breadth and is better funded than either NVIDIA or AMD but their excessive focus on x86 has kept them from seeing this opportunity emerge until recently and their heavy focus on litigation activities suggests they know they are out of step but are uncertain how to correct the problem.

      So, you are correct, that NVIDIA has issues but so do the others. I just think NVIDIA has the more complete vision and were it not for the x86 shortcoming (they do have ARM) I’d give them the edge. As it is, I think it is anyone’s game for now. NVIDIA has the better vision, AMD the most aggressive merged technology strategy, and Intel the strongest positional power and most resources. Whichever eliminates their shortcomings first likely wins this race.

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