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IBM and the incredible shrinking PC

IBM's PC division, hit hard by losses, is betting in the near future that more computing will mean less.

IBM's PC division, hit hard by losses, is betting in the near future that more computing will mean less.

Big Blue, like other PC makers, is developing smaller, simpler and more portable devices, many of which will not use Microsoft Windows. But unlike some competitors, IBM is experimenting with a wide range of prototype devices, including a full-function wearable PC based on the ThinkPad 560 notebook.

While many of the prototypes are unquestionably futuristic--the wearable PC, for example, sports a monitor in a visor--they foreshadow a day when computers will cost as little as $100 and rely more on networks rather than storing information locally.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Phil Hester, chief technology officer of IBM's Personal Systems Group, described his company's vision of future computing and a new product line, EON, or "edge of the network."

CNET News.com: There is much speculation that the new class of devices IBM and others are developing will end the PC's dominance. Do you see that happening?
I think it's just the exact opposite. All of these devices are friends of the PC, not its enemy. When you go back and read what was written about the minicomputer, there were all these articles it was going to replace the mainframe [and] the PC in networked corporations would replace the minicomputer. All that's happened is we've renamed the mainframe as enterprise server and the minicomputer to departmental server. And if you look at the amount of dollars spent for departmental servers and enterprise servers, every year they've gone up.

Has this had an impact then on the cost of computing?
Each generation of these technologies has cut by about a factor of 10 on the cost of purchasing that technology. When mainframes came out in round numbers they were $100,000 to $1 million, minicomputers $10,000 to $100,000, PCs ranged $1,000 to $10,000. When you look at these access devices they're probably in the $100 to couple-hundred-dollar range.

Each time you reduce the cost of the information technology, what that means is more and more people can afford it. And as more people have access to the technology, what that does is drive up demand for the infrastructure and information to those devices [and] the demand for the computing services that support that level of technology. This is kind of the fourth wave of this, with mainframes, minicomputers and PCs preceding it.

That still doesn't explain what the role of the PC will eventually be.
As you're carrying around these devices in the future, you're going to want the content of the information present on your device to be personalized to you. Being able to find the information you want, personalize it, kind of filter it to your device is a pretty general-purpose complex problem. That sounds like something a PC is pretty good at, so I don't think the PC is going to go away.

Your PC, with its broadband connection to intranet, Internet information, it's probably going to be sitting there looking at that information with user preferences for the stuff you're interested in. And when it finds that stuff, it will use some kind of wireless connection to get that to the mobile devices you're carrying around with you.

In the Windows world, there is much focus on the operating system. Do you believe we are moving to faceless devices where the operating system choice is insignificant?
Communications is the key to this thing. When you have reasonable bandwidth both wired and wirelessly, you can really start thinking about the device itself not having to do all of the computing but depending more on the network. So my answer then is yes.

How important will wireless Internet access, not just wireless to network technology, mean to this shift to simpler Windows-less devices?
Whether you're in the U.S. or over in Japan, you're seeing digital cellular in the 16 to 64 kilobits-per-second range today. That to me has the same user experience as your analog phone line connected to your PC at home. It's not perfect, but many people find that more than acceptable.

Are you testing any devices with wireless Internet access?
We're still in the technology prototyping stage in that space, and there are a fair number of partnerships to be made. We [recently] announced a partnership with Nokia to put some of their expertise in the device space together with some of our ViaVoice technology and back-end capability. So we expect more and more of that stuff in the future.

In September you unveiled a subscription-based option that lets customers pay a monthly fee for Internet access hardware and service. Do you see adopting a similar model to EON?
It became pretty clear that the small businesses that did not have the in-house [technology] expertise really had two problems: They didn't want to get into the details of the technology and they just wanted a solution...A monthly service charge as opposed to a capital service charge up front is something we think makes a lot of sense.

Do you see wide adoption of a services model for EON?
We are looking at several models. There are some companies that want to purchase the devices and have their own depreciation. So I wouldn't say we would exclude those, but definitely a services model is one we would have to offer at the next stage.

Let's talk about your wearable PC, which I understand is based on the ThinkPad 560.
It's got USB, it's got PCMCIA slots, it's got serial and parallel ports and all that stuff. It literally is a full-function notebook, but in a package you can carry around in your pocket or on your belt.

Are you looking at alternatives to Windows 98 or Windows 2000?
This device uses the standard software packages today used on notebook PCs. But as we look at other types of general access devices, there the operating system and the software technology inside it becomes less visible to the end user. So from that perspective, yes, we are looking at other [operating systems] and other software stacks in the access device itself.

That you chose a full-function notebook approach, does that mean you are not looking at slimmed-downed operating systems, such as Windows Powered or Palm OS?
No. We think these things come in all kinds of different flavors, so it won't be one size fits all. There's this new world in the future where some people simply don't need access to the information. This is because the Web is starting to dominate in the way a lot of corporations create a presence or publish their information.

So there is a separate set of work around this EON activity around both on client appliances and client services. It's a lot like your cellular phone. I ask people to name the microprocessor or operating system for their cellular phone. I can't do it either. It's an appliance, and you don't buy it based on the internal hardware or software technologies.