Commentary: The changing of the guard

Although the IBM PC is now 20 years old, the question for the PC today is not about the past but rather the future--where does it go from here?

Although the IBM PC triggered the rise of Microsoft and fueled the growth of Intel and is now 20 years old, the question for the PC today is not about the past but rather the future--where does it go from here?

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Evolution, not revolution, in PC's future
The answer is that the PC still has a long way to go, and the pace of its evolution is not slowing. Visionary Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft, argues that the computer industry as a whole--and the PC segment in particular--is based on exponential economies. These economies result in microprocessors, storage and network price/performance improving exponentially every 18 months. We expect this exponential change to continue through the next two decades and to transform the PC into a vastly different box.

Although traditional desktops will continue to be available for the foreseeable future, as will keyboards and screens, the PC is expanding into new form factors, such as the Pocket PC-based personal digital assistant (PDA) and Microsoft's Xbox game console. We believe that these are only the beginning of the new forms that the PC will take in the next few years. In a more generic sense, microprocessors have found their way into just about every corner of our lives, from cars to appliances.

PC peripherals will also continue evolving. Recent years have seen significant improvements in flat-panel and other display technologies. We expect this to continue, with increasingly sophisticated screens becoming available, eventually moving to more of a 3-D, hologramlike viewing experience. Storage also is evolving, not only in the size of hard drives, going to terabytes 10 to 15 years from now, up from today's tens of gigabytes, but also in alternative media--as seen in the evolution from tape to CD-ROM, which will soon progress to DVD and formats with even higher densities. Printers, having evolved from black-and-white, dot-matrix to color laser technology, will continue improving in speed and resolution, approaching film quality.

In terms of connectivity, we expect the PC to be woven even more tightly into a networked world. This will be true from the standpoint of ever-faster wired connections, moving to gigabit Ethernet and beyond. The PC will also become increasingly untethered. The early wireless networks of the last decade are a precursor to the high-speed wireless LANs and wide-area networks of the future, such as 3G, or third-generation, wireless.

For consumers, we expect networked computing--probably wireless-- to expand in the home. Just as many consumers now have multiple TVs throughout their homes sharing the same cable connection, in the future they will have multiple access devices to their central PC--which will become more of a household server than today's PC--in multiple rooms, plus possibly portable devices. Intelligent appliances, such as refrigerators and stoves, will also be networked into this home server in the future.

Portal authority
A key trend that we expect to gain momentum is the notion, advanced by Nicholas Negroponte decades ago, that increasing amounts of the processor power will be devoted first to the user interface. In the early days of computing, it was unheard of to waste precious cycles on making computers easier to use. In the future, we expect more than 90 percent of processing cycles to be dedicated to more sophisticated interfaces, ranging from fancier graphics to much improved speech recognition and speech synthesis.

We expect technologies such as the ability to detect motion, and even artificial intelligence, to be added to provide a more flexible and convenient interface that can adapt to an individual's needs.

Eventually, people will interact with PCs more as "people" than as devices. For example, the PC will learn and anticipate user needs. In the 1950s, a secretary would greet an executive every morning with a quick verbal summary of important phone calls, reminders of the schedule for the day and a newspaper opened to the financial page--along with a cup of coffee. A PC is never going to get the coffee, but it can provide a similar summary every morning through an interface such as a next-generation portal.

Sophisticated portal technology will mark a transition in user interface, moving beyond the graphical model to a virtual desktop that organizes and personalizes the computing experience. The portal user interface will aggregate information based on a user's role (such as sales manager, engineer, human resources clerk), thereby significantly improving productivity.

Although portals provide a virtual desktop/user environment that reaches beyond the PC, that device isn't necessarily going away. Instead, in the long run, portals will organize network applications as well as local productivity applications and files stored in the PC. For the foreseeable future, the PC will be the standard access device for the enterprise portal, but it will be augmented in other environments by PDAs, mobile phones and other pervasive devices.

In the near term, research and development, as well as processor cycles, will also be dedicated to making underlying operating systems such as Windows much easier to use and more resilient. Windows XP represents another incremental step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go for computers to be self-healing and truly intuitive to keep running. Hopefully, in 10 to15 years, PCs will become more like today's Hondas that don't need to have any real maintenance for the first 100,000 miles instead of the cars of old that motorists needed to work on every weekend.

The generation gap
One of the more interesting PC trends has less to do with the technology than with the cultural change that has come along for the ride. Today's younger generation has grown up with instant messaging, role-playing games and computers as part of everyday life. Their increased ability to multitask (and their shorter attention spans) will affect the corporate world even more than the PC itself.

An entire generation is now accustomed to interacting in a virtual world. This results in tremendous potential for virtual teaming and cross-company collaboration, which is currently challenged by cultural issues as much as by limitations in collaboration technologies. Because current managers didn't grow up in a virtual world, they hold a much higher regard for physically being in the same place with someone else.

Organizations should not believe that the PC evolution is slowing or make lasting cuts in their budgets for upgrading and replacing desktop systems. A continued bad economy, particularly if it becomes considerably worse, could slow development. But companies should still plan on upgrading their desktops every two to (at most) four years, depending on the state of the economy, to realize advantages from systems with better user interfaces, more capabilities and particularly increased dependability.

In the longer term, the implications of the continued evolution of the PC for society in general create the promise of being able to work where you want to live instead of where companies have buildings. Virtual communities will become much more functional as a generation that grew up with them assumes positions of power. This will continue the existing trend of virtualizing companies across various virtual "chains" (supply, service, value), breaking down traditional mindsets constrained by four walls.

Meta Group analysts Steve Kleynhans, Val Sribar, Jack Gold, David Folger, Hollis Bischoff, Wilson Rothschild, Aaron Zornes, Dale Kutnick and William Zachmann contributed to this article.

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