Execs find little common ground on "post-PC" era

A spirited trade-show panel including leaders from Sun, Palm and Microsoft reflects the industry's growing pains as it attempts to figure out how to sell increasingly sophisticated "information appliances" to a mass market.

3 min read
LAS VEGAS--Information appliances may be the hot new thing at the computer industry's biggest trade show, but they retain at least one legacy from the PC era: the entrenched rivalries and disagreements of the major computing and software companies.

If the attitudes of industry executives are any indication, consumers may have a long wait before the much-touted vision of the networked home is realized.

Alan Kessler Here at Comdex, participants in a panel discussion on upcoming digital devices found little common ground. The high-profile cast included Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems; Alan Kessler, president of Palm Computing; Craig Mundie, senior vice president of consumer strategy at Microsoft; and David Potter, founder of Psion. The discussion was moderated by Wall Street Journal personal technology columnist Walter Mossberg.

The group agreed on one point: The future of personal computing and Internet access lies in single- or limited-use machines designed specifically for Web surfing and email. Make that two: The panelists also agreed that the technology industry is just beginning the long process of trying to figure out whether it will be "smart" cell phones, handheld devices, TV set-top boxes or scaled-down Internet terminals that will succeed in striking consumers' fancy.

Craig Mundie But they could not agree on how these devices will communicate with each other and within a home network, how they will look and feel or even which products will become most popular.

While entertaining, the spirited discussion reflected the industry's growing pains as it attempts to figure out how to sell increasingly sophisticated products to a mass market. The target buyer for these information devices may not have the PC user's patience with complicated interfaces, difficult-to-understand manuals and buggy software, and they will expect their appliances to last a lot longer than a typical computer.

Not surprisingly, the disagreements largely fell along party lines. Microsoft's Mundie promoted a vision where devices do not eclipse, but complement, typical computers. Sun's Joy argued that the key to widespread adoption of information appliances is a universal software language, such as Sun's Jini.

Palm's Kessler drove home the importance of keeping the devices simple and easy to use, like the Palm Pilot, and Potter from Psion pushed smart cellular phones, such as those running on the Symbian operating system.

With the exception of Mundie, whose company still makes the majority of its money from desktop operating systems, the other panelists criticized the PC in its current form. The top complaints: long start-up and shut-down times and frequent system crashes. Appliances with instant-on capabilities and simplified software will solve these problems, according to the group.

"The PC has been the fulcrum of the industry," Potter said. "Now the PC is a means of accessing the Internet," he said.

Microsoft took issue with the assessment that the PC is dead, even as it promotes the idea of the "post-PC era."

"You're making a mistake if you don't think the PC will be part of it," Mundie said, adding that he thinks of devices such as the WebTV television set-top box as "the Internet on training wheels," because many WebTV customers eventually upgrade to full-fledged computers. The other panelists disagreed with that assessment.

Consumers will naturally feel more affinity for devices they carry with them at all times, like the Palm V, said Palm's Kessler.

But users aren't necessarily looking for an emotional attachment to their gadgets, Joy argued. "I don't want a personal computer. I want an impersonal computer" that doesn't require lengthy software installation or customization wizards and forms, he said.

The consensus that seemed to emerge is that users are looking to access information, and they want the easiest way of getting to it.